By the beginning of the year we had redefined hell.
Hell is now the white condominium, one away from the golf course, with petunias in the brick flower box by the front door.
We have to believe in this hell. Without a hell there is no heaven. We have to have our religion of please-god-save-our-mother even though there is no longer a god and Mom is going to die.
My sisters and I congregate at our white condo-hell and arrange things.
Who takes care of Mom this day, the next day, three weeks from Tuesday if she’s still alive then? Who calls the doctor or the hospice nurse or the ambulance if she needs to been seen by someone? Who handles the paperwork and the insurance and the will and the ashes if Mom dies right this very second now?
If has become our petition.
Our prayer to the godlessness we’ve founded.
And as five sisters who are all adults, we must find ways to deal with each other again.
The youngest of the sisters makes her demands on the rest of us. She wants comfort and she wants attention and she wants sympathy and she wants our ears and our shoulders and our ATM Personal Identification Numbers because, all in all, what she really wants from everyone is their money. She wants until there isn’t anything left in me to give and then she wants more. She wants wants wants and I give until she has leached the last ounces of caring out of me and I just want her to go away which just makes her dissolve into poor-me tears that make me want to punch things.
My walls are in imminent danger of my fist.
The other sisters are all older than me, have been in the position to tell me what to do and me in the position to do. And not one of these three older sisters are falling into those prearranged positions I thought to expect once the words cancer and Mom were shoved together in August of the year before.
One sister was supposed to avoid all involvement.
One sister was supposed to be the step-in mother to us all.
One sister was supposed to be too busy with work to deal with life.
I was supposed to be the fount of all things medical, the one who took care of things, the voice of reason which no one else would listen to, the family messiah who is in tune with the nature of our grief and our inability to show it, because I am the one writing this and they are not.
None of us live up to my expectations.
Our avoid-it-all sister comes and sits. She brings hugs and she brings potato salad and she sits. She brings bread and she brings cookies and she sits.
“Why does she always bring food?” another sister asks.
“To feel like she’s earned the right to be here,” Mom answers.
Mom has grown wisdom alongside her cancer.
Until the day comes when this sister brings only herself and we welcome her in and ask her to sit.
Our mother-us-all sister hides in SoCal. The white-condo-hell is too closed up airless and too real. If she can avoid the rituals of waiting for Mom to die, then Armageddon will never come and we will all be the same. Static and alive
and it doesn’t work that way.
I wish sometimes I could be like her.
Our life-is-busy sister sets down her load, un-harnesses herself from a work-every-day trudge, drives ten hours north to us and takes up the new harness-trudge in Mom’s blue guest bedroom. She meets with doctors and lawyers and hospice and this person and that person and fixes everything just so. She has made it possible for the rest of us to mindlessly wander the white condominium, watching every move Mom makes in case it is her last.
This is the sister who built hell.
The fourth of the five of us, the writer and reader and pompous bitch who thought only I could take on all of this illness, take on all of the chores and come gloriously out of hell with rainbows and stigmata.
I wait and watch with the rest. More useless than I have ever been before as we sacrifice our mother on the alter of in-home-hospice-care.
Dad was supposed to be the bastard asshole good-for-nothing shadow of a human being that could only feel relief at the loss of his first of four wives.
Every hell needs a devil and that was the father I had built in my head.
That might have been the man Mom built in her head too, because she didn’t tell him about the cancer until May of this last year of her life.
Mom wrote it in a letter mailed to the trailer park where Dad lives with wife number four. It was a heartless way to tell something and I knew bone deep that he deserved heartlessness. Vindication for lapsed child support and past drunken brawls and infidelity.
Vindication that deserves the convenience of a stereotypical bad guy in the face of the world coming down around our ears.
And Dad called.
He called me and he called my sisters and he called Mom. He cried with us and asked to visit. He came to Mother’s Day dinner and sat with us, the seven members of our root-rot family tree together again after a mere thirty-seven year drought.
And after Mother’s Day, when he was supposed to slither off to his car and make his way west and south and away from us, he stayed. He called wife-number-four and she agreed, told him to take care of us, told him to be the man she knew him to be, told to him to stay as long as we needed him.
Wife number four has grown in my estimations.
Dad now sits with us, waits with us, watches Mom.
He administrates pain medicines and walks to the 7-11 to buy Mom cigarettes.
They joke about their youth while Mom makes the foods she made so very long ago – fried chicken and baking soda biscuits and chicken gravy and green beans. We talk about mundane things while we eat.
And questions build
Could they have ever been this normal kind of couple?
What would it have been like to grow up with them like this?
Is this how everyone else spent childhood?
My parents have built me a purgatory of What ifs.
I wish sometimes that I was an alcoholic. A constant, medically recognized drunkenness would be nice.
Or maybe I wish I was a better liar. That I could look my daughters in the eye, look my husband in the eye, and say that I am fine and everything is fine and we will get through this unscathed and sane and fine.
I want to hide behind my mother’s legs.
I want to hide behind the doors and the curtains and the walls of my house.
I want to hide in my room, head under the covers, door locked until someone has to take it off the hinges just to get in.
I want to live there, die there, wait there on the feather pillowed comfortable rectangle of my bed.
I wait for the knocking sounds of someone needing me.
I want to answer the knocking with “There’s no one in here”
because I am empty of me so it’s true.
I cannot let them in, my husband, my daughters, because I will contaminate them with my loss and my sorrow and the hole where my heart is supposed to still be.
I am broken, and do not want to break them.
In hell, Mom doesn’t eat anymore. Cancer has blocked the path from her stomach to the rest of her body. She makes dinner and watches us eat.
In hell, Mom’s pelvic bones stand out in vertical mountain peaks. She only wears sweat pants because anything without an elastic waist falls off.
In hell, someone always has to be with Mom when she takes the stairs, someone must be willing to catch her if she falls so she doesn’t break.
In hell, we wait until we no longer have to.
About the Poet
Sally K Lehman is the author of Small Minutes, The Unit – Room 154, and Living in the Second Tense which are available for purchase for Kindle on Amazon. She has had more than twenty poems and stories published in online literary magazines including Bewildering Stories, The Scruffy Dog Review, Ascent Aspirations, Voice Catcher, and Perceptions Magazine of the Arts.
Sally studied Mathematics at UC Berkeley and worked in the computer industry for many years prior to becoming a full time writer. She is currently living in the Portland, Oregon area.
This poem was previously published in Perceptions Magazine of the Arts, 2014
The photo is of Eileen Crawford, my Mom, at age 18.