Bertram Allan Mullin
Noon: Mom sauntered over, along the grassy knoll, toward me, soaked in her attention-seeking perfume. “You’re schvitzing.” We hugged. “What’s wrong?”
Funny how any time I initiated affection I’d get that question. “Don’t have the surgery,” I said.
Puzzled she asked, “Why not?”
I couldn’t tell her about the dream the night before with her in a bloody hospital gown. Adults didn’t make decisions this way. “Don’t you know, because of your hypothyroidism and Crohn’s disease, you can’t get liposuction? It’s too risky. You might die. That’s why the five surgeons you asked before this one told you no—they wouldn’t do the operation.” Plus, she wasn’t even overweight. I had read up on her diseases, and both had a side effect of bloating.
She laughed. “It wasn’t five. It was two. And don’t worry. I’ll be fine. Besides, I’m just getting some of my stomach muscles fixed, not liposuction. The procedure is supposed to help my stomach pain.”
I wanted to believe her, “But ...”
“A minor operation—promise, kiddo.” She wavered. “I’m famished.”
“So, it’s really not risky?” I wanted to believe her more than my gut.
“No. A minor operation—promise.”
Before we ate, Mom wanted to show me something inside the safety deposit box at her bank. We waited in the lobby for a banker. I asked, “Can you eat today? Your operation is tomorrow.”
“Yes. I’m having it at night-time. Twelve hours before the operation’s no problem.”
Mom jolted from her seat to hug a woman approaching her. Her loud excitement to follow could be heard from the bank tellers. In the past, I’d assumed her overzealous demeanor was a public nuisance. False. Witnesses gleamed hope from her joy. She introduced me to the woman, who had a firm handshake. I ignored the stranger’s name, knowing full well I´d never see her again, but I did listen to them chat. The two worked together as online instructors. It upset me how Mom had worked so hard to get her professorship for that job, just for her employers to replace her and her colleagues with automated response technology. She said to her friend, “Computers can’t teach them like we can.” I saw a certain kind of sadness in their eyes, which welled pain. I’d actually never seen Mom so sad. Or I never bothered to notice.
Soon, a banker let us enter the safe. Mom dropped a big box onto the table and opened the lid. An old musty smell drifted. I covered my nose to sneeze. There was a lot of shiny stuff in that big box: black pearl necklaces, diamond earrings, solid silver rings and junk jewelry, too. Mom only wanted to show me one item inside a hidden compartment—a wristwatch: old—golden with a silver lining on the rim. The crystal was dented, but repairable. The even digits were gold-plated, odd numbers formed from arrow-shaped lines, a red hand made an alarm. Y-shapes on the wristband were unique. Mom handed me the timepiece. “Your godfather’s. I want you to have it when I die.”
I put the watch back into the box. “Then it’ll be here awhile.”
“Go ahead and take it now. Just in case,” she said.
I wanted to ask. Yet she’d just lie again, though. Then something occurred to me. “Isn’t my name on the list of people who can access this box?”
“Then if something happens, I can come and get it, right?”
She touched my hand. We locked the beautiful death watch away.
Lunch: we went to a Chinese buffet. An elderly lady walked over to our table and greeted Mom by name. When their cackles filled the room, I had an uncontrollable smile. Mom whispered, “All about who you know, kiddo.”
This stranger was the owner.
Nana had told once, “In the fourth grade, your mother sang for food at a chicken joint. She ate free.”
Mom had money. She loved the attention singing and entertaining brought her, hence she sang for food. She sang in plays before college, too, and in the ’70s traveled with a choir to Rome to perform in front of the pope—with her big Star of David hanging from her necklace chain. “The pope’s eyes bulged when he saw your mother’s necklace,” Nana had said. My mother just loved to be adored.
After taking a few bites of food, I realized, “Where’s your car?” So careless of me not to notice it was missing from her driveway when I had picked her up.
Mom sat calmly down and said as though no big deal, “I sold it.” She had special-ordered her car only a few years ago. Why on Earth would she sell it?
“Gas prices.” Mom: professional reader of expressions. “I’ll drive Ron’s.”
Yet another rehearsed answer. “Why are you so sad?” I finally asked.
Mom searched for a reply. At least unrehearsed. “Because I don’t have anything in common with any of my children—not any one of you.”
“That’s silly. You and Anna are feather birds. You meet at stores by accident when new tchotchkes come out. You and Morris with your conversations no one else can follow.” Then a cold realization, “Why the topic?”
“I don’t understand you. You could be a teacher, a nurse. Instead, you’re—creative,” said as if a curse. “I just don’t understand why you write all these creative stories,” she finished.
“But don’t you see that’s how we’re alike? You’re a teacher, sure. Yet, you still look for the next adventure around every corner. If memory serves, before you decided to become a teacher, you were the catering chef for our synagogue. Why, just last week, you were talking about opening an antique store. The week before, you had an idea for a restaurant,” I said, not realizing it was because she was fired from her job.
Realistically, Mom latched onto those ideas so that she could belong somewhere and have something to call hers.
Not noticing, I continued, “Next, you’ll have a scheme to fly to the moon. See, I inherited my ability to imagine and create through your creative gene. So, don’t say it like it’s a bad thing. That wacky mentality of yours rubbed off on me, and knowing this makes me happy. Isn’t being happy what it’s all about?”
Despite my inability to see just how unhappy she was, Mom cheered up right then. She genuinely loved my answer.
Mom had a question prepared next, as though the point of our having lunch. “A professor of mine once asked me if I thought I was a surfer attacking an earth-shattering tsunami or the person running from it. Which one do you think he said I was?”
Nothing I could say would be correct, so I said, “Neither. You’d place your foot into the water and say, ‘No big deal.’ Then you’d laugh and laugh at the destruction before you, stand there poking fun at what little damage the tsunami had caused, and tell it to do a better job next time—probably give instructions.”
Then she said something I’d never forget, “No, kiddo. I’m the tsunami!”
Intrigued, I waited.
“My professor said I touched people wherever I went and even when I’m gone they’ll all remember me, like an Earth-shattering tsunami.”
“Deep,” I said, actually more moved than I revealed.
I drove Mom home. At her place, we hugged. She kissed me on the cheek and said, “I love you.”
“You too, huh?” I said to get her to smile.
She waved goodbye.
Night of her operation, sheep were off duty for me. Green swirls formed within the concaves of my lids. Some made squares. There were bright circles, too, seducing me into opening my bobby specks. If only they’d stay still, I could get some rest. Mom used to say, “Even if you can’t sleep, resting your body helps recharge you for the next day.”
Morning: my tired eyelids opened toward my silenced phone, almost out of juice. Several messages. A cousin´s text read, “Call me. 911!”
Then came a knock at my front door—Dad. His expression: grim, lost, and shattered rolled into one. My stomach sank, heart pounded, jaw cement. When he touched my shoulder and said, “Your mother died,” I had already been blasted away by the earth-shattering waves.