The office was square and dinky with pale, peach color walls like the Avon lipsticks Mom and I used to order from catalogues in the early 80’s. The pink lipsticks I wanted had names like “Melon Crunch” and “Sugar Breeze.” We flipped through pages together and bickered about color palettes. You’re a Summer, she said. I wanted Winter colors: scarlet red gloss and black eyeliner. On one peach wall, twin corkboards displayed a few pictures of my precocious twelve-year old niece before she became a nanny in Chicago and had three kids. In the pictures she grinned with a full set of braces and her thick red bangs were shellacked with Aqua Net. She posed with a hand on one hip in tight black pants and a black sleeveless shirt. Her eyes exactly like my brother’s: deep chocolate syrup brown. She lived with Mom for a while and threw parties without permission. Mom and her husband came home to her singing in the living room surrounded by amused neighbors. She had the leading role of Annie in her school play.
On another corkboard were Mom’s post cards from Spain. She took a trip with her women’s organization friends and brought me back two small ceramic bowls with blue flowers painted on them. One broke in the move from SF to LA. The other one holds my cereal every morning. Next to the Spain pictures, were snapshots of her cats: Willow and Sam dozing in her rhubarb. In the background were the two brown horses boarded in the barn. One of them was blind. The cats sat on her lap on her end of the couch where she always read the paper with a Moore Menthol dangling from between her right fingers. Rum and coke rocks glass in the other. I never slept in the office bedroom and I never will even though there’s a stiff double bed in there.
After the cancer came back, that room—her office—became her bedroom so she wouldn’t have to take the stairs. The bathroom was only few steps away.
The office carpet had groove marks where the feeding tube rolled and beeped. The beep was louder than an alarm clock, but not as loud as a garbage truck backing up. The little robot feeding tube pumped neon pinkish orange fluid into my mom’s stomach through a red, angry hole in her skin that was taped shut when the tube was removed.
Under pinkish coral blankets, her eyelashes fluttered and her hands clasped shut in front of her chest. She wore her wedding ring. She wore her watch. She wore fuzzy pink striped socks.
Can I have the newspaper? I handed it to her.
Under an extra big window was a blonde wooden desk. A clunky, outdated computer sat on top of it with a soft swiveling chair. In that chair, I typed.
I like that sound, she said. She’d been a secretary for 35 years.
It was my first semester of grad school and I’d come for a visit after she’d said I’m barely here. On her computer, I translated a Finnish poem about Springtime and flute music and being in love. It was neither Springtime nor was I in love. The instructor posted recordings of the poems being read in Finnish with certain words and their definitions: In the morning, feelings of new love and to wake up thick with dreams.
Can I have a drink? Mom asked. I held a glass of ice water with a straw that was long, white and bendy so it could reach her mouth without her having to move her head much. I stretched it out and made sure it wouldn’t dribble water down her chin. That would’ve urked her. She hated messes. It dribbled. I wiped her chin with a paper towel.
Her face had more spider veins than I remembered. Her hair had grown back but it was grey and thin where it had been thick, brown and wavy. Her cloudy grey eyes were huge sad marbles. She was much smaller than I remembered. I brushed her damp hair away from her eyes.
I held her hand.
Do you want some milk? I held the blue glass to her mouth and she sipped the milk.
I’m too hot. She pushed the melon-colored comforter aside. She threw up white curdled milk on the blankets. I grabbed more paper towels. Warmed a washcloth in the sink. Held it to her forehead.
The fever was back. On the desk was a pile bills and files. Her living will. She kept papers in meticulous paralegal-style order, but now it was in disarray. Outside the window, in the neighbors yard up the road, white geese waddled in a pile of dirt. They honked. A plum tree was in bloom. The afternoon sun was fading. I opened the window. I stacked her papers into a neat pile.
For my memorial, use my Cobalt blue vases, she said. One vase had bright yellow daffodils in it. Her neighbor brought them over earlier and cried. Told me how special my mom was. Like I didn’t know. Like I failed to recognize her specialness. I will, mom. Promise.