Dying is not glamorous, so Mom decides right away she doesn’t like it. It’s messy and uncomfortable. And depressing. As soon as she’s rested enough to talk again, she tells me all about it: the throb at her temple, the nausea from the medication, her arms bruised from a series of injections. “Look at me, all black and blue. I’m worse off than when I came.”
She waits, wearing that stubborn, almost hostile expression she uses when she wants something.
“Mom, you could have died yesterday.”
“Oh,” she scoffs. “It wasn’t anything all that bad.”
“A heart attack?” I remind her of what the doctor had told me earlier: “You almost didn’t make it.”
“Well,” one pearly lip pushes out. “And now I suppose they want to keep me here as long as possible. Drive up the insurance charges. What’s my deductible these days, anyway? Does anybody know?”
I rustle through my bag, pretending to look for something. Mom hates it when she thinks I’m not paying attention. “Theresa? Have you checked? The deductible?”
“Hmmm?” I pull out a tube of lipstick—something cheap I’d picked up from the gift shop that morning—twirl it open and apply a fresh coat. It smells new and waxy, like a child’s birthday.
“Don’t you care? All that money?”
“It’ll be fine, Mom.”
“You always say that, but you wouldn’t be the one to help out, anyway.” Her eyes settle on me, accusing. “I told you to try for more alimony. Honestly, Theresa. Sometimes I just don’t know how you can be so short-sighted.”
I smack my lips together, smearing the new color around. Mom knows I hate talking about the divorce. “There’s nothing to worry about.”
She keeps eyeing me, her mouth set hard like she doesn’t believe a word of it. “You can’t wear that color, honey,” she says finally. “It washes you out.”
It isn’t until the handsome Dr. Jameson comes back to explain the surgery again that Mom finally agrees to it. She is easily charmed by charming young men. And the doctor is just the kind of man she admires most: clean-cut, attractive, and well-educated. I try to tell her that people’s good fortune in life doesn’t necessarily add to their worth as human beings. But she doesn’t listen. She loves beauty; she loves to be seduced.
“My daddy had hands like yours, Doctor.” We all look to the surgeon’s smooth, well-kept fingers. “He believed you could tell a man’s success in life by looking at his hands. That’s why he took such good care of them—which wasn’t so easy out there on the circus.”
There are other patients down the hall: a whole hospital wing full of appointments waiting for Dr. Jameson. He is a busy, important man. Mom knows this. But she also knows she’s baited him: “Your father worked on a circus?”
“Oh, he owned the circus, Doctor. We had two rings and thirty performers; ours was the best little show in California.”
The doctor chuckles lightly, checking the time. Mom glances down again at his hands, and the little plastic-coated diagram he’s pulled out of a folder.
“What’s that you got there, Doctor?” She points to a drawing of a heart, split in two. It looks like a bright red acorn, snarled by a swarm of lines that divide and divide until there’s hardly any space left.
“This is the procedure,” he explains, tracing a finger along the lines representing my mother’s congested arteries. “These two,” he points at two fat-looking tubes in the diagram, “are the ones that have been damaged.” Then he describes the tiny incision he will make, the miniscule camera that will wind its way up the choked blood vessel, deposit a balloon and a stint, and draw back out.
“Very straight-forward,” he assures her. “There shouldn’t be any problems.”
But my mother shakes her head furiously. “It sounds so uncomfortable.”
“They’ve got to do it, Mom,” I tell her. “It’s important.”
She scowls at me. “Nothing’s as important as a positive outlook.” This is her answer to just about anything medical. She hates sickness, hates medicine, hates hospitals. As a child, I rarely went in for check-ups or antibiotics. Mom nursed me instead on Coca-Cola and Benny Goodman. She used to dance around our living room, where she’d set up the sick bed, crooning along with “Taking a Chance on Love” and “Memories of You” coming off the record player. Her hair, when she was younger, was always swept up in a twist; sometimes she wore a kerchief. Always, she wore a skirt. Her cheek bones were high and rosy; her eyes flashed magnetic blue. Even in her fifties, I thought her as spectacular as a movie star. She was spirited, charismatic. And she had no qualms about keeping me home from school. So I stayed on, sick or well, belting out tunes with her on our broomstick microphone: Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me. No! No! No!
Dr. Jameson slides the demonstration diagram back into his folder. “Maxine,” he says gently. “It’s a very simple procedure. And it will help us see what’s going on in there. We need to know for certain.”
She sniffs. “Certainty’s overrated. You think things were ever very certain when I was growing up?”
The doctor is unfazed. “Don’t worry,” he pats her shoulder. “Angioplasty isn’t a highly dangerous procedure. You’ll be fine.”
“Oh!” Her eyes flip dramatically toward the ceiling. “You think I’m worried about some little operation?” For emphasis, she waves a hand haughtily through the air. “Lord, what I haven’t been through already. You want dangerous? There were plenty of dangers when I was a girl back on the show.”
Dr. Jameson jiggles the little watch chain along his wrist. It’s getting late, but he can’t resist. “What kind of dangers?”
“Oh, everything,” she breathes, her eyes going luminous. “Oil lamps catching the tents on fire. Train cars jumping their tracks. Snapping high wires. Gypsy bandits. Knife fights and bar brawls. Elephants going musk.”
She shifts her attention back to me. “Theresa,” she asks. “Did I ever tell you about what happened with the elephant? After I got back from school that first time?”
“No, Mom,” I lie. “What happened?”
And just like that, I’ve become her accomplice again, providing her with the means to move in and out of stories—whether real or imagined. This is the way my mother has survived her life. She needs an audience; she needs to keep believing in the spectacular.
More than a decade ago, when my father was sick with cancer, it had been the same. Each day after school, she’d pick me up from St. Ann’s high school for girls just as the final bell tolled. Then we’d speed up to the Veteran’s hospital in silence. I would sit blankly, staring out the window at the May grass, smeared with early poppies. Sometimes I’d read a school book or flip through the radio: ABBA, the Carpenters, Neil Diamond. Later on, I knew that Mom would ask me about my day, but not until we got up to Dad’s room. We were saving ourselves for him. All the words we could muster between us each day were better spent where he could hear us.
Often, when we arrived, he was asleep or at least too spent for conversation. That’s when Mom would start in with me: “How was school today, honey? Did you find out about that geometry test?”
“Oh, it went great, Mom. I got an ‘A.’ I only missed two questions.” The way I answered became more and more artificial. Our lives had become like an interview: the smooth exchange of ideas for a higher purpose.
“San Antonio, Theresa! How did a daughter of mine ever get to be so smart?”
I would blush with pleasure then. “Mr. Maxwell says I should think about going to college.”
“Of course you will, honey. We’ll get the money together, no problem. You’re going to be a star, that’s what you’ll be. Just think of all the things you’ll get to do in your life.”
I had liked this way of talking. It was a lie—how good, how hopeful our lives were!—but it was something I could depend on. The same thing every day: cheerful, orderly, known. Although I would have been ashamed to admit it, by the time Dad finally left us, it wasn’t that loss I felt so much as the make-believe happiness that my mother and I had so carefully cultivated.
Mom’s eyes keep careful watch of Dr. Jameson. “Well,” she says, “Dixie was jealous, that’s what. Just fit to be tied. Because, after the six months I’d spent away at boarding school, Daddy wouldn’t let me out of his sight. But Big Dixie was Daddy’s best thing. She was his star: the biggest pachyderm in all of the western states. And she adored Daddy; she acted just like a jilted lover.” Mom pauses to give me a wink; this is part of the momentum that she is building. I smile back to keep her going; all my life, I’ve been hearing these same stories.
“At first it was just bad manners,” she continues. “She would give the circus hands a hard time—wouldn’t get back in her pen, or threw food all over the place. She was foul-tempered. Mean. And then there was an incident with one of the keepers. She tore the man’s arm right off. Yep, just like that. Snapped it off and threw him across the wall. Broke four ribs and both ankles. We just about thought we’d lost him.” She looks up again to make sure that the young doctor is still listening. He shifts his black physician’s folder to the other hand and checks the clock again: 3:00. I sigh. I need to go call my attorney soon—and my work. Two more days until the surgery, I’ll tell them, and then I can return to my normal life: sign the divorce papers, continue with my benign job filing account records at the bank. Or quit, perhaps, as I’ve promised myself I would, once the settlement comes through.
“Well, it was sad, you know,” Mom’s voice is lowering now: slowed and steady for the final punch. “But we had to put her down; you just don’t mess around with an animal that doesn’t want to be tame anymore. So we decided on oranges, because that’s what she loved best. Thought we’d just poison a barrel of oranges and let her die peaceful. But Dixie was too smart for that. Lord, you should have seen the look in her eyes when she figured it out. Rage like you wouldn’t believe. She picked up that barrel with her trunk, all those oranges in it, and threw it outside of her pen. Just threw it, like you’d throw a worn out old baseball. I tell you, the circus hands went running after those oranges, rolling all over the place, worrying over the other animals eating them. The whole show could have gone down in one night. And me and Daddy just stood there, watching Dixie. It was terrible, the way she looked at us. Like a person, an honest to God human being. I’ve never felt more cruel.”
Dr. Jameson nods, something inside him, too, coming into focus.
“So Daddy went for his gun. There wasn’t anything else to do. And when he got back, she was just standing there, waiting for it. I don’t know how many shots it took to fell her. Ten? Twenty? The whole time, she never moved. Just kept watching and watching us. She must’ve been dead five, ten minutes before her body finally tilted over onto the ground. Afterward, I asked my daddy if it made him sad. Sure, he said; but he was glad, because he still had his Baby Max. He said there wasn’t anything in the world he loved so much as me.”
Of course Mom comes out of the surgery fine: tired and resting most of the time, but stable. When I see her again, she lies slack-jawed in the hospital bed. The image is disturbing. My mother, I am reminded, is a body—and a broken body at that: earthy, organic, and delicate. The experience with Dad had been so different. I was young—seventeen—and he had still been a kind of god to me. His body was large and hulking, like it had always been. The fact that cancer was eating him up slowly from the inside-out seemed incidental, unreal. But this is entirely different. My mother is old enough to die. And she looks it; she looks like a weak, dying old woman.
“How’s the circus lady doing?” Dr. Jameson asks when he comes back around to check her status.
“Fine,” I nod toward the bed. “Sleeping.”
He glances toward her, grinning. “She’s a firecracker, that one.” My mother has this effect on people: they love her in spite of themselves. “It must be quite something,” he shakes his head mildly. “Having a mother like that.”
Yes, I agree. It is. For however much longer I might have her.
“How were the results?” I ask quietly.
The doctor’s face shifts then, his hand going into a pocket and shoving downward until the elbow locks. His gaze flickers toward my mother again. “Why don’t we discuss that outside,” he says, pressing open the door. “Let your mother get some rest.”
In the hallway, he tells me carefully: “The stint will hold for awhile. And there is some medication that I can prescribe.” He holds my gaze silently for a brief moment; and suddenly it becomes easier to guess his age: thirty-four? thirty-five? A young doctor. Not much older that me.
“But it’s not good.”
His head shakes. “It was much worse than we’d hoped for. Your mother’s arteries are very weak; there’s been a lot of damage.”
My head bobs, agreeing with him. Of course. She is seventy-two years old. These things happen.
“We’ll keep a close eye on her,” he promises. “But a prognosis is impossible with this kind of thing.”
I nod again, keeping my eyes carefully centered on his.
“It would be best,” he says more softly, “to be prepared.”
When I come back into the room, Mom is awake. “Don’t tell me,” her voice is blunt. “If that man says I’m dying, I don’t want to hear about it.”
“Mom, we were just going over the treatment plan.”
“Oh, I heard you,” she says. “Out there in the hallway. I know what you were talking about. So don’t you say anything to me.”
She stares at me accusingly and tries to get up, unsuccessfully, one arm still attached to the intravenous drip.
“Here, Mom,” I move toward her and untangle the cords from the metal railing at the head of the bed. My mother needs help now, a lot of it: help out of the bed; help steadying herself across the room; and pulling open the toilet seat, and sitting awkwardly down on it. When she finishes, I put one arm around her shoulders and move her back toward the bed, dragging the squeaking IV pole behind us.
“Thank you, dear,” she sighs heavily, slumping down into a sitting position. “And to think,” she laughs mildly. “I used to be an acrobat!” Then she reaches over to remove her socks, but the effort is wasted. Her range of motion is limited—her body collapsing, curved inward, as though to keep nearer to itself, the synapses drawn more tightly, shortening the distances to be traveled.
She doesn’t say anything, but I’m already bending down to pull the socks from her feet; they come off warm, still holding the tiny arched form of her foot. “You’ve still got some fresh ones?”
She nods, and I pull open a drawer in the small, three-layered bureau built into the wall.
“You know,” she muses. “I don’t really know who shot that elephant.”
“What do you mean?” I choose a clean pair of the socks that I’d collected from her apartment two days ago. They lie quietly beside a few pairs of wide-rimmed underwear and wire bras, two rolling tubes of sleeping pills and decongestants, and a half-finished suspense novel.
“Oh, Theresa,” she says flatly. “Do you really think my daddy would have let me see something like that?”
I peel the clean socks apart from each other, undoing the ball of them. “So you made it up?”
She shakes her head. “Most of my life, we just went on living without any idea of what was going to happen next.”
I dress her in the socks and pull her legs gently up onto the bed so she can lie down again. “Well,” I tell her. “Everything’s still going fine. You’re okay.”
“You don’t always have to know things,” she insists.
She looks at me carefully. “You don’t have such a clear sense of things either, now do you, Theresa?”
I stare down at her: slumped and breathing shallow. It’s no business of hers, really, but this is no time to argue. “No,” I admit. “I don’t.”
Her voice moves down a register. “It’s a tough place you’re at, Baby. But you’re a strong person. You’ll make out. You will.”
I nod, not sure which one of us she is trying to convince.
“It’s like shooting elephants,” she goes on. “Sometimes you can just live in the details.”
“All right,” I pull the covers over her. “The nurse should be by soon for your pain killer.”
“Oh, I’m fine.” She waves a hand loosely through the air, shutting her eyes. The lids are thin and veined, so they look larger and more unsettling closed than open. Her upper lip folds down a little too far, shifting her whole face into a great, frog-like expression.
“Theresa,” she says softly. “Tell me something good about your life.”
All right, I think, settling down into a little plastic chair beside her bed. My mind moves carefully over the details of the past year: the decision to leave my marriage, the morose meetings with lawyers, the awful realization that my husband wasn’t even going to ask me to come back. And now my mother, holding her small body together in the hospital bed, with no kind of certainty at all.
“Well,” I begin, “I’m going to quit my job next week.” Hearing it said out loud surprises me. “The work is terrible,” I tell her. “Boring. I’m going to look for something better.”
“Mmmmhmmm,” she murmurs, her eyes still pressed into their veiny lids.
“Part-time, probably, because I want to go back to school. So I can do something important—like become a teacher, or a nurse.”
Mom’s head nods against the pillow. “You always were so talented.”
“Well, I’ve talked to the admissions people at the university up in Sacramento.” This is something I had been meaning to do for months. But the divorce, and now my mother’s health, has kept me from it. “They say I have the grades to get in. From back in high school. I did well enough.”
“Of course you did.”
“So I’ll start in the fall. Just like all those college kids.”
Her hair, from sleep, stands up around her head like dandelion silk. “And will you marry again, Theresa?” she asks, and I feel myself nod: oh yes. In fact, I tell her, there’s already a man I’ve met. He’s from one of those southern European countries—I don’t even know which one. But his skin is beautifully golden, his features strong, and his hands beautifully kept. Mom smiles against the pillow. Her own hands, limp outside of the covers, look like tiny, emptied bags, lined and useless.
“He’s very smart,” I go on. “And worldly.” When we have children together, I tell my mother, they will belong to two countries, and they’ll travel back and forth across the Atlantic, seeing everything—just everything—that it’s possible to see.
She smiles more deeply. “Do you love him?”
Yes, I promise, as though it were possible. As though all of it—the world, love, happiness—were still possible. Once I finish school, I tell her, I will travel with this man. We’ll go to Rome, India, Tunisia. There won’t be anything left that I don’t know about. No more stories left untold.
“That’s so good, Theresa,” she breathes. “So good. Any daughter of mine certainly could.” Then she pauses. We hold the air quietly between us for a moment—filling up the spaces with imagined details. When she speaks again, her voice is nearly a whisper. “And what did you find out?” she wants to know. “What did they say about my heart?”
I look down my mother, a little greyish stain on the white lining of the hospital bed: loose and lank and barely breathing. Her pink patient’s gown pokes up over one shoulder, enough so that I know some part of her lies exposed underneath. I place a hand across the top of her chest, rubbing the spaces over her lungs, her heart. Then I tell her, in no uncertain terms: “It’s the strongest one I know of.”
Susan Meyers earned an MFA from the University of Minnesota and a PhD from the University of Arizona, and she has lived and taught in Chile, Costa Rica, and Mexico. Currently, she teaches creative writing at Seattle University. Her work has appeared in journals such as CALYX, Dogwood, Cerise Presss, and The Minnesota Review, and it has been the recipient of several awards, including a Fulbright Fellowship.