Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
My mother died in the middle of the night. In my mind’s eye, I see it like the lights turning off in an old factory, shutting down one circuit bank at a time, an electric hum the only thing remaining.
The day before, I asked her if she was scared. (I always wanted to talk about the worst. As if that could make it better, like therapy in reverse.) “I don’t feel like I’m going to die yet,” she said, her voice matter-of-fact, but also light, nearly lilting, inconsequential. “The food in here sucks.” “My arm hurts.” “Is it as cold today as it was yesterday?”
My mother died in the middle of the night. My father was on one side of her, my sister and I on the other. My father petted her hand. She is enormous to me in this memory, propped up in the bed, neither lying nor sitting, plugged into the different machines, like some sort of bloated, unconscious queen. Like Jabba the Hutt, but not disgusting. My father petted her hand on the other side of the bed, ten feet away. He said that we loved her. We’ll miss you, he said. Her face was puffy, her skin visibly dry. I can’t picture her hair, but I know it must have been thin, straw, parted on the side like a middle-aged combover, the scalp color coloring her hair, so it looked even more strawlike. She was not a vain woman—she joked about her thunder thighs; my fiancée looks at old family photos and says she knows where I got my taste in clothes—but my mother liked her hair. For a while she even tried to take pride in her wigs. Handmade, she said, real hair. She told us the prices. I don’t remember if I touched her hand. I don’t remember if my sister or I said anything. I remember my dad petting her hand and crying and saying the same things over and over again in a manic whisper. Then we walk out of the room and they turn her off. I can hear the different parts of her shutting down. Click. Click. Click. Hum.
My mother died in the middle of the night. The day before I played basketball. I only wanted to play basketball. I went to Washington University, tried to sneak into the gym. The boy at the counter had big red acne, a baseball cap turned backward. He wouldn’t let me in. I told him I just wanted to play basketball. I offered to pay. But rules were rules. I tried other doors, downstairs, around the back. I knocked on the glass, but nobody let me in. I only wanted to play basketball. I came back to the counter. I was visiting the med school, I said. My uncle was on staff at the hospital. All four of my grandparents had degrees from Washington University, my dad had a degree, four of my uncles and one of my aunts, my mother had three degrees from Washington University, a BA, an MSW, a JD. Look it up. She’s in the hospital dying right this moment, my mother, and everyone attending her is on staff at Washington University. The acne kid had a book open in front of him. He chewed a pen. All he wanted, his posture told me, was to have his acne, wear his hat, chew his pen; why was I making this hard for him? Why couldn’t he just let me into the gym?
When I was leaving, I saw Joni Molluff. She played power forward for Washington University; she had on a practice jersey. She asked what I was doing in town. I think she hugged me. I picture her arms encircling me as I bow my head, half-turned to her, on her chest. I picture her cradling me against her chest. But that can’t be right. She barely looked at the acne kid. He’s with me, she said. She walked me downstairs to the basketball courts. I don’t remember why she didn’t stay and play with me. She’s the kind who would. I remember there were two games running full court and I remember a ball bouncing across the gym at a diagonal, bouncing, bouncing, silently in my memory, nobody giving chase. It’s about the loneliest thing I can imagine. I remember walking up to the group of guys under the basket to ask who had next.
My mother died in the middle of the night. When we left the hospital at 10:00 the night before, the nurse told us it would be a hard night for her. She leaned against the door frame to my mother’s room with a clipboard in her hand. “Tonight could be a long night for her.” She hugged the clipboard to her chest. It was her way of letting us know—that’s what my father says. Or that’s what he said at some point after she died. But my dad’s memory is even worse than my own, and I try not to talk to him about certain things because he doesn’t remember them the way I do. My dad says now, for example, that we didn’t know from the start that my mother’s cancer was terminal.
My mother died in the middle of the night. I think of it as a Wednesday because I like the symmetry that gives the week. Home on Monday, death on Wednesday, funeral on Friday, back to college on Sunday. (Even though the next week was Thanksgiving.) Technically, of course, it was some time Thursday morning. Rabbi Cohen gave a beautiful eulogy. He knows my family. He married my parents in the same temple 24 years before—he said so in his beautiful eulogy. But that’s when the mistakes began. Rabbi Cohen said that the cancer had been there when she went back to law school, “and not even her children knew this, exactly.” We sat there gazing up at him while the words hung in the air over the congregation. (In my mind, they are hanging there still.) Of course we didn’t stand up and interrupt the service and say that the rabbi didn’t quite have it right. This was the same man who Bar Mitzvahed me, manhandling me by my shoulders while giving the blessing, the same man who married my parents. At the temple, they lined up out the door to shake our hands. They lined up down the street. The service started 45 minutes late. She’d been in public office and that’s how many people came. An SRO funeral. Rabbi Cohen said that my mother would have loved making the temple wait nearly an hour. She would have had a few choice words about it, he said, some of which he could even repeat from his pulpit. Everybody laughed. At Jewish funerals, it’s okay to laugh. This part alone is worth the mistakes. (Maybe it’s the fate that awaits us all—we get misremembered and misremembered until we’re gone entirely.) Now I listen to the eulogy once a year, on the cassette player of my $13,800 Honda Civic. I drive someplace dark on November 18 and roll up my windows and sit in my car. Rabbi Cohen’s voice is crackly and rich, a natural’s voice, and even superior production value can’t hide the sadness. “No, the world will never be the same,” he says in the darkness of my Honda, once a year. “The world will never be the same.” The rest of the year the tape sits in my glove compartment and I’m always worried the Arizona heat will warp it, but I don’t move the tape and so far it hasn’t warped. For some reason it is the Hebrew that chokes me up the most, even though I don’t understand a word. I’m hoping Rabbi Cohen will come out of retirement to perform my wedding in June. But my father gave me his phone number four months ago and I haven’t yet made the call.
My mother died in the middle of the night. My dad called me Monday at college at 5:00 AM to say that I had better come home. I’d been up all night, studying for a midterm on the common room floor, awake on Jolt and NoDoz and nerves. (I’ve always had trouble being the person I want to be.) I answered the phone on the first ring. “You better come home,” my dad said. He’d already bought the plane ticket. My future roommate, Ben, drove me to the airport. All my good friends knew that I was a person who carried my mom dying around with me. Ben was one of the few people who had a car at school. A Volvo or Rabbit, something vaguely Waspy, which he’d always been, and vaguely gay, which he’d turn out to be. It was parked across the river. I could have more easily taken a taxi. In the car, Ben moved quickly, jerkily, as if he were scared of me and didn’t want to let on. I can picture the flexing muscle of his temporomandibular joint. I can’t imagine what we talked about. I remember wondering if this was it. You wait for something for ten years, you imagine the way it will be. Then there’s a car, a door handle, an interior of some particular material, a good friend sitting next to you, scared. And you want to ask him about the way he’s moving his hands or clenching his jaw. But what I remember most from Ben’s car is thinking about my roommates from the year before. We were black, Asian, Jewish, a Wasp. We were sensitive and cynical and hip; nobody’d ever been friends like us before. But collective depression turned in on itself. I became the scapegoat. I remember thinking about them in the car on the way to the airport to be with my mom and feeling like this gave me something up on them. This is what I felt—one up. Lyle and Phil and Ron, and even Ron’s girlfriend, Veronique. I remembered them talking about my music and the way I danced; I remembered how the room got suddenly quiet when I walked in the door, how I could guess the line of their judgment when they asked about my upper-middle-class home, my lack of financial aid, the maid who had worked for my family for years. If they could just see me now, I thought … not the make of the car or the material of the interior or what I talked about with my good friend Ben.
There’s all these people on an airplane and some of them you talk to and the attendant gets you a drink and maybe tells you to have a nice day. There’s an aisle and people in seats on both sides of it. There are rivets in the metal. There’s a carpet on the floor and a particular pattern on the seat. And then you go back down the aisle and past the cockpit and get off the plane. And you think that everybody has a mother. And you think, but these thoughts are only inside my head and not out here with these other people and the aisle and the curve of the airplane ceiling and their computers and their books and their carry-on bags.
Did somebody meet me at the airport? My sister was 17, she would have had my mother’s car. Lord knows my mom wasn’t using it. (Friends say I should cut that line, but I can’t … it’s my mom’s sense of humor.) Or did I take a taxi straight to the hospital?
My mother died in the middle of the night. That semester I was taking five classes, one more than normal. I got an A, three A-minuses, a B-plus. I remember those grades. To this day, I’m proud of them and embarrassed both. I did the least work for the A, learned the most in the class I got the B-plus in: personality psychology. One of the professors, who published with his wife as Bern and Bern, let his son go to school in a dress because gender is biologically determined. He lifted up his hem to show that he was a boy. The other professor was young, fancied himself a prodigy, long wavy silky-black self-conscious hair you couldn’t take your eyes off. I think he’s the reason I got the B-plus. I think he resented the fact that I thought my B-plus work deserved an A, considering. Maybe he’d been through something similar. I was studying for their midterm when my dad called. I was always awake when I got bad news about my mom. I always answered the phone quickly. I wouldn’t believe in that kind of thing if it hadn’t happened to me. My dad and I talk once a week now, Saturday or Sunday, depending on which day he plays tennis and which day he rides the bike path. Recently he called on a Wednesday evening. He wasn’t home when I called back. It’s 12 years now since my mother died; she’s been dead longer now than she was sick—it never occurred to me that that would be possible. My father wanted to discuss the invitation list for an engagement party a family friend is throwing for my fiancée and me. By the time he called back, I’d already called all my relatives to make sure everyone was okay.
My mother died in the middle of the night. Jill Millner came home for the funeral, even though she was dating Jay by then and they’d showed up twice at my dorm room so they could hang out with my roommates. Jill Millner came through the line at the front of the temple. She cried and cried. She made this eye contact with my dad and my sister and with me. Jill Millner was made for moments like these, the important moments, not the moments that kill you a little at a time. God, how she cried. We hugged, even though she’d come twice to my room with Jay. We’d been together three and a half years, my mom was in a casket on the stage, what was I supposed to do?
Teri Pearson came home for the funeral. I loved Teri Pearson. Loved her loved her loved her. She had a laugh. The freest thing I’ve ever heard. We dated for all of two months during high school. Slept together just once, after college. Immediately after that, she found Jesus—I mean the very next day she drove to the Christian camp with the three hard K’s in the name. She’d found Him before, but she hasn’t misplaced Him since. I take credit. Now she has a husband and three kids in Southern Illinois, and Jesus. She’s the most passionate person I’ve ever known. Passion enough to be scared of. Maybe that’s the secret. I remember the hollow wings of her hips, flying. I thought for sure we’d wake up my parents—which tells me it wasn’t after college at all, my mom was still alive, it was after freshman year and I was cheating on Jill Millner, but she was in Spain.
My mother died in the middle of the night. After the funeral everyone came back to our house for shiva. Bobby Bonner had come in from Boston. Jeremy Vining wouldn’t be a good friend for another couple years, but he came back to our house for shiva, because he was in town and because his father had died the year before. I remember standing in our kitchen, the brown wood table and brown flower wallpaper and brown wood cabinets—now all clean and white and nonstick—swaddling us and facing Jeremy and not being able to remember if it was his mother or father who had died. And I remember years later, when we were good friends, sitting at a stoplight on Union, the two of us in my mother’s old Valiant, and making the same mistake.
My mother died in the middle of the night. But what I remember most is the end of shiva. Bobby and me and Teri Pearson and her older sister Katie, who Bobby always liked. And I remember lying on the floor of the front hall, where some 300 people must have walked, lying on my side, propped on my elbow, facing Teri, who was lying on her side, propped on her elbow facing me. Maybe we are holding hands, my right arm, her left, draped across our waists, intertwined on the floor. Bobby and Katie are somewhere in the picture, on the floor as well. The chronology as I’ve told it to myself over the years indicates that Teri had Jesus then, meaning there was no real threat of her having me. But this isn’t what I remember. Her mother had died ten months to the day before mine, and this was a part of our love, our mothers’ long dying from cancer, but not nearly all. My chest hurts writing it, I can feel my throat constrict. But I’m not Jay Mclnerny and we didn’t even kiss. I don’t think I’ll ever love anybody like I loved Teri Pearson. In its purest distillation, in that moment on our sides on the floor the day of my mother’s funeral, it’s the one feeling of all that I’ve known that doesn’t change over time.
My mother died in the middle of the night. Years later, I would actually date Joni Molluff, the woman who played power forward for Washington University and got me into the gym. There was something brazen about her sexuality, sexy and off-putting both. She would brag about her blow jobs. But when she gave me one, I wasn’t impressed. I needed to relax more, she said. I needed to let go. She was as tall as me and strong and she had beautiful wild kinky hair and she said that she could beat me in basketball, but when we played it wasn’t even close—she couldn’t get off her shot. She came with me when I bought a new car. A Honda Civic for $13,800. Money my mom left me. My dad had the same house, a new wife. My sister wasn’t speaking to either of us. I had just come from medical school on one coast, had vague notions of going to graduate school on the other. This was the car that would take me away. Joni Molluff told me that I should enjoy it: if it were her, it would be one of the happiest days of her life. A first car, paid in full. But I couldn’t get over the size of the check. What I couldn’t tell her about the blow jobs was that there was somebody else I was dating who I liked more. Somebody with whom letting go felt like the most natural thing in the world. One night they both showed up at a bar on the Landing where I was watching a local band of guys we all knew. I’d had a series of long and serious relationships and I’d cheated in each and felt terrible in each. All I wanted was to be able to sleep with one woman one night and another the next and not feel guilty about it. I was living at home, my mom’s home with everything redecorated. I left little messes around the house that made my father furious. I liked to pull my chair close to the cheap black-and-white in the kitchen; my stepmother couldn’t understand why I would rather block off the sink than watch the color television in the den. I wasn’t going to explain. Joni Molluff and the other woman knew each other and knew about each other. The night on the Landing I watched them talking in the hard music and they looked over at me and both laughed, Joni tall and strong and dignified, the other one letting go. It hurt my feelings.
My mother died in the middle of the night. The woman I’m going to marry (why don’t I want to name her here?), the other woman that night in the bar, never met my mother. A few nights after the night on the Landing, we went to a concert upstairs at the Hipointe. Jonathan Richman, the goofy guitar player from last year’s goofy summer blockbuster movie. But the music touched her. In the parking lot she said that after music like that she didn’t feel like doing something meaningless. I was a 26-year-old living on borrowed time in my mother’s redecorated house, and I had a new car to leave in, but I said maybe we could change things so that it wasn’t meaningless and before I said it I was still trying to talk my way over to her apartment, and after I said it, I wasn’t. I’ve cheated on her, too, but it was a long time ago, when we were still in separate cities. And I told her. And for now, at least, I can say that I never want to do it again.
My mother died in the middle of the night. We stood on separate sides of her bed a mile apart and my dad petted her hand and then we turned our backs and walked out of the room and they turned her off. I can still hear her shutting down.
My mother died in the middle of the night. I wrote a story once where the main character’s mother died after a long battle with breast cancer when the main character—Matthew Hesch, named for a basketball-playing friend I’ve lost track of—was in college. Afterward, Matthew Hesch floated aimlessly through life for a while. He was productive in a résumé sense, but what he did every day had no connection to who he was. I look at the jobs people have and I wonder if this is the way most of them live. Then I hurt inside. Because this is the rung to the one-up-ness that my therapist says proves my feelings of one-down-ness. At least I love what I do. After my mother died, we found the letters she had written each of us two years before in the top drawer of her desk. She must have gotten recent bad news, thought her death was near, two years too soon. My letter starts out in the third person: “Mom wants you to know … ” I keep it in a gray file cabinet in a green file labeled Mom’s Letter. The second paragraph is about choosing a career. Pick what you want, she says, not what others force on you. Twice she says that I have special talents. When my mother last knew me, I was on my way to medical school. In the third paragraph she talks about “finding a girl,” being a “Daddy.” “In fact,” she writes, “I would suggest lots of kids—if you can afford them.” That line gets me every time. At the end of the letter, after she signed it Mom, she added a paragraph in different ink about my theater experiences. I imagine she forgot it the first time through, and was reminded writing my sister’s letter, who was naturally more gifted. The letter is two pages of yellow legal paper and near the bottom of the first page there is a spot where the ink is smudged. I like to think it’s my mother’s tear, but knowing her, it’s just as likely to be condensation from her glass or forgetting to cover her nose when she sneezed. In the story about Matthew Hesch I wrote, “For a long time, his mother’s illness was the anchor in his family and now, without it, he felt adrift.” I still think that’s a beautiful line, or at least a beautiful sentiment, perhaps somewhat too explicitly expressed. I called the story “Mourning.” But it was rejected 24 times before it was published and then it didn’t get an honorable mention in any of the year-end anthologies. One semester I whited out my name and gave the story to my community college composition classes to read. They are an interesting lot, most of them looking up at the University of Arizona, half-resigned to the fact that they can’t put together enough consecutive days to get there. Not one person thought to ask who the author was—not even the next class, when I would usually start off with a few biographical comments. When I asked for a show of hands, half of them indicated that they liked it better than “Sonny’s Blues,” by James Baldwin, which I also assigned for that course and which is the best American story by anybody, ever.
My mother died in the middle of the night. It was 2:00 AM that Wednesday night/Thursday morning when the phone rang. I answered on the first ring. I wouldn’t believe in that kind of thing if it hadn’t happened to me. “It’s time to come say goodbye.” I swear that I can still hear those words. But I can’t tell if the voice is male or female. “OK,” my dad says into the phone, getting his bearings. “OK, OK, OK. We’ll be right there.” He says it like a man making arrangements. This is the thing to be done. I picture him closing his eyes as he says the words, alone in their bedroom. In her own way, the nurse had let us know. I was looking at my sister. I was standing in the doorway to the bathroom that connects to my room, looking at her lying in her bed when the phone rang on her desk and I picked it up. (These rooms are exactly the same today, the bathroom, my sister’s room, and my own, though neither of us stays there anymore.) But my sister says that she answered the phone. Usually we have the same sense of the way things were; my sister just fills in the details. We have even learned to say bad things about our mother, which isn’t easy when your mother spends ten years dying, and all the years after that dead. My sister says she answered the phone. But I can feel the phone in my hand, cradled against my ear. I can hear my father’s “OKs.” I can see my sister sitting up in her bed. But my sisters memory is almost always better than mine. My phone must have been plugged into the jack in the bathroom, stretched to her desk, her phone plugged in next to her bed. We did that when we wanted to be in the same room. All three of us must have been on the phone at the same time. My dad must have come into her room, made the announcement—the next thing to do—not knowing we were on the phone. I can almost picture it. I can almost hear him saying the words. I must have gotten dressed, picked out certain shoes. I must have sat in the front seat or back. We must have parked in the garage, walked to the elevator, pushed the button, walked to her room. But that’s all gone now. Then my sister and I stand on one side of her and my father stands on the other, ten miles apart. My father pets my mother’s hand. We turn our backs and walk out of the room. I can still hear her shutting down.
My mother died in the middle of the night. My fiancée is not, perhaps, the choice my mother would have expected. I’ve had three other serious relationships—a Columbia PhD, a Hopkins MD, an MA from Yale. My fiancée dropped out of the University of Missouri, Saint Louis. She was working retail when we met. School was always the thing she couldn’t do. But the truth is my mom really only knew the future PhD, Jill Millner, who twice brought Jay to my dorm room a couple weeks before my mother died and cried and cried at the funeral afterward. The truth is my mom never saw enough of my choices in women to be surprised or not surprised. My fiancée and I played hangman in a bar. Not being able to see her future did not keep her from being funny. We were still in separate cities when she called to tell me, “I walked across the campus today.” So? I wanted to say, what good is that? You didn’t even talk to someone in admissions? It is my mother’s voice inside me, the impatience, the no-holds-barred pragmatism. The feminist in City Hall. The same thing that gets me motel rooms when there’s a No Vacancy sign, a table when they’re booked. Instead, I say, I’m proud of you, and I think of my mother in another way.
Maybe fear is the prerequisite for courage.
Maybe my mom could testify to that. Or maybe, in the ten years of dying and recovering, she never let herself be afraid. I think that’s more possible than you do. (But then, I’ve always liked believing in the blessedness of other people’s unconsciousness.) Maybe she would raise her eyebrows and shrug her shoulders, and—almost physically—slough it off, which is what she usually did with the big questions, anyway.
My mother died in the middle of the night. The other night my fiancée looked up from her work: “I think your mom and I would have enjoyed singing together.” I was grading community college papers, trying not to turn bitter. She was making materials for the school where she teaches. It’s not as straightforward as other people’s, but we can see our futures now. “Rock of Ages” was a Hanukkah tradition in our family. A two-minute mimeographed service, lighting the candles, the song “Rock of Ages.” We brought the cheap copper menorah, the box of colored candles to Puerta Vallarta, to Jamaica and Martinique when the two calendars overlapped. “Rock of Ages let our song / Praise thy saving power / Thou amidst the raging foe / Wast our sheltering tower.” Recently my stepmother’s traditional Christmas Eve dinner coincided with the fourth night of Hanukkah. I’d come over from Stephanie and Nick’s, the friends’ house where I stay now when I’m in town. I saw the menorah, the stack of photocopies in their usual spot on the kitchen counter. I knew what was coming. My dad had always sung “Rock of Ages,” the lyrics were right there on the photocopy. I couldn’t imagine it—in these redecorated rooms, at this Christian celebration, with these additional invitees I barely knew. My sister had arranged her flights to miss dinner altogether. I caught him in the back hall. “Dad, couldn’t we just leave the song out of the service?” It reminded me so much of Mom, I said. Please, I said. No, he said, it was a part of the service, I could go upstairs if I wanted. Later, we would yell at each other long distance about this conversation. It is typical of our fights: his unbending logic, my rising volume, no satisfaction for either of us. Didn’t anybody notice that I disappeared for the service—one of the three Jews? Didn’t anybody ask where I was? In our family of four, my mom was the only one who could carry a tune. The menorah lights our four faces gold in my memory, the rest of the kitchen dark behind us, as she tries to overwhelm us with her voice. She tries to pick up the tempo while my father, always methodical, slows it down. My sister and I look back and forth between them, singing, laughing, our sympathies with our mother, our natural proclivities with our father. It is typical of their disagreements, their kidding on the square. But much more kidding than square. All my life, I’ve heard that I’m like my mother—her good points and bad—but my father and I have never been able to kid about the square.
This is my fiancée’s expression, kidding on the square. She is right: they would have enjoyed singing together, but especially if I were there, or my sister or father, for them to roll their eyes at.
In therapy, you spend your time making up theories. Theories about why it is hard for you to put one day in front of the other or be on time for class or why you’ve gone years at a time without being conscious of your dreams. Theories about why you didn’t cry for the first 20 years of your life, didn’t cry at your own mom’s funeral when Jill Millner who was going out with Jay by then cried her eyes out. And then you learn how to meditate and cry every single time. Twice a day for three years. Less now because time doesn’t permit and the poured cement floor is hard to get comfortable on.
My mother died in the middle of the night. This is not tragedy; tragedy is when you can’t say this. Last night on the news, a woman spoke publicly for the first time since her 16-year-old daughter was found murdered in the desert two weeks ago. Gang related. The boys turned themselves in. The girl had just come from a support group to help her deal with the death of her younger sister the year before from a brain tumor. That’s when we turned off the TV. It’s not art I’d like to censor, it’s the real world. How am I supposed to make sense of the scale of earthquakes and floods, famine and genocide? Of collateral damage? My grandmother has buried two husbands—my mother’s biological father as well as her adopted one. In between there was another husband my grandmother divorced after three months because she caught him fudging the books. But first she beat him with a telephone. My mom was two years old at the time, my uncle three. My grandmother retired last year at 85, in charge of collections for the successful carpet company she started with my grandfather forty years before. My grandmother cannot so much as say my mother’s name without crying. “Such a sweet girl, a good girl,” she says. It’s funny—I don’t think anybody else who knew my mother would use those words to describe her.
The border clinic where I help translate has kids who will never string together two words or feed themselves. And yet their mothers bring them the first Thursday of every month. I remember Dr. Selzmen huddling with us in the hospital lounge. He talks about the cancer and the gram positive infection, about organ systems and battling drug effects. He talks about the possibility that the cancer has invaded her brain and might change who she is. My mother is a symphony orchestra of dueling horns and strings, antibiotics and chemo, melody and harmony, malignancy and infection. Dr. Selzmen has consults with medicine and surgery, with hematology and infectious disease. My mother is a multinational corporation. He is the CEO and we are the board. He thinks we can control x, head off y, address z down the road. He thinks she can live with a, b, and c for another q months, maybe years. My mother is an algebraic equation. He thinks breakfast and dinner—if not work and laps—still possible. He thinks the person we know is still mostly possible. By all means, we agree, pull out all the stops, do everything you can. Treat aggressively. Dr. Selzmen is the reason I will go to medical school, or at least that’s what I say in the application essay after my mother’s dead. After our meeting, my mother is conscious when I’m alone with her and I ask if she’s afraid; a couple hours after that, when she has not been conscious for a while, I go to Wash U to play basketball. Nothing works, of course, and the nurse warns us and then calls and we come back to the hospital and stand on opposite sides of the bed and then walk out of the room. For Chrissakes we turn our backs and walk out of the room. I can still hear her shutting down.
This is nothing against therapy. I’ve been doing it the better part of my choosing life. Paying for it out of pocket. But this is what you do. Depending on the letters, you pay $45 or $120 an hour and you make up theories. I prefer female therapists. I put them in the position of being impatient with my indecision—by easy extrapolation, impatient with my depression. “Just pick a goddamn topic,” my mother would say, bailing me out, the night before the paper was due. I’m clever with the ways I can make them impatient. But if they’re onto me, and the current one is, they won’t get frustrated. I hate that. At least their anger proves that they’re involved. When they’re able to stay cool and detached—and I make it difficult, but the current one is—then I know it’s just a professional relationship. Just a job for them. Eventually you see the pattern and it becomes a theory. “See how much is invested in your staying depressed?” my therapist says, her voice detached.
My mother died in the middle of the night. We walk out of the room and they turn her off. If I write the line enough do you stop reading it? Do I? There are copy/paste functions on my computer. But I don’t use them. I type it out each time.
My mother died in the middle of the night. My mother died in the middle of the night. My mother died in the middle of the night. My mother died in the middle of the night. My mother died in the middle of the night. My mother died in the middle of the night. My mother died in the middle of the night. My mother died in the middle of the night.
—Daniel Stolar’s fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in DoubleTake and other magazines. His first book, a collection of short stories, is forthcoming from Picador USA this spring. He lives in Tucson, Arizona, with his wife, Lauren Cathcart, a Montessori school teacher.g
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.