Becoming the Sea
I hear Momma crying before I reach her door. I find the nurse trying to comfort her, but Momma is inconsolable. “Hey, Momma,” I say. “What’s wrong?”
She turns her puffy face to me. “Cindy,” she whispers. Her nose is running. I reach into my coat pocket for a tissue. “Cindy, they’re being mean to me!”
“It’s okay, I’m here now.” Cindy is my aunt, Momma’s older sister. While wiping Momma’s face I smile at the nurse, who is new and perceptibly uncomfortable at the accusation. It’s okay I mouth, nodding my head. I think, You think your job is tough? Try no longer existing in your own mother’s mind. The nurse returns my smile and leaves us alone.
I rub Momma’s back, gently, feeling each vertebrae of her spine through the light gown. Too much pressure is painful and I must be careful not to rub the same area too consistently. Some time passes this way until her tears finally slow and the hiccups stop. Then it’s time for indignation. Momma has always been a stickler for routine.
“Cindy, these people are crazy!”
“Yes! I heard two of them talking in the hall just this morning.” Momma turns her thin body toward me, motioning me closer. I lean into her. In a low voice she tells me, “They’re going to turn my bones into buttons!”
Her hair hasn’t yet been combed, so I pat her flushed cheek and go find her hairbrush. There’s no need to remind her that she’s quoting Gregory Corso. Momma lives in some other time, a time parallel to the one we are sitting in right now, but her time doesn’t include the past of her I know. In her past there is no daughter, no grandson, no students watching her grow animated as she discusses her beloved Beat poets. Yet, it all still exists somewhere inside of her, and from time to time it comes out, confused but beautiful.
“Look,” I tell her, “I brought you something.” I go to my bag and pull out two bottles of soda. The bottles are glass, identical to ones I remember from my childhood. That morning I had found them in the grocery store in a display meant to provoke a nostalgia purchase. Momma’s face erupts into a smile as I hold the bottles up for her to see.
Growing up, there were two things I could always count on to be in the refrigerator any time I pulled open the heavy metal door—a gallon of whole milk, and bottles of soda. A soda addict for the better part of her life, the height of it was, perhaps, when we lived in the little house on Sycamore street. It’s a green house with brown trim now, but in my childhood it was a brown house with matching brown trim. Shaped like the boxes Dunkin’ Donuts put Munchkins in, it sits across the street from the First Baptist Church at the end of a long driveway held down by giant cottonwood trees.
Those trees are gone now, and the church has grown eastward into a mega complex complete with a contemporary sanctuary sporting giant video screens displaying the words to the hymns for the convenience of the congregation. The old chapel, however, is still used; it’s where my mother’s funeral will take place sooner than I am ready. Her casket will set just feet in front of the baptismal where I was baptized at fourteen and just yards from the front door of the little house.
The retro soda bottles present me with a minor problem—how to get the metal caps off. They can’t be twisted off like today’s plastic lids, and I don’t have a bottle opener. In the house on Sycamore there was a metal opener attached to one of the cabinets in the kitchen. I would bang into the kitchen, pull our sodas from the refrigerator, put the lips of the metal caps into the mouth of the opener, and shwock, pop the tops. Momma and I would go into the back yard and lounge in the shade of the willow tree, listening to the noise of the highway and watching Trixie stalk beetles, peering at us from the edges of his emerald eyes to see if we were sufficiently impressed by his, as Momma called it, phenomenal feliness.
A nurse’s aide opens our bottles for us. I take that first big swallow—the one that burns so good that it makes my eyes water and expands to fill my stomach. We don’t rush —there’s nothing else competing with our time, no urgent activities or errands wait. Even the cancer taking Momma away from me is on hold. For a short while, just for a moment, I beg, let all our pasts and presents align into one bright curve, let me be allowed to bend time to my will. The universe is kind enough to say yes.
I turn my empty bottle sideways and peer into it as I would if looking for a ship in a bottle. But instead of seeing a clipper with sails fully rigged questing into adventures unknown, I recognize a little brown house on Sycamore street, its front door open. I see Momma, tranquil now, standing in the open door and smiling at me, holding her soda bottle in her beautiful, slender hands.