I'll Never Tell
“I just wannna live alone now.”
“Mom, you’re 79-years-old. Why would you want to move away from Dad at this time in your life?” I couldn’t believe we were having this conversation.
She struggled to explain, “It’s my rhythms, my life rhythms: they don’t fit with him. Come to think of it, we never did fit, but I didn’t pay it so much mind ‘til now.”
Having no idea what she was talking about, I released a loud breath. “But, Mom, what if you get sick? Dad will be there for you.”
“Hah!” she snorted. “He’s never been with me like I needed before, so why would I expect that in the future?”
I knew from the way she flipped her hand and lobbed her head that she wasn’t posing a question. Still, I tried, “But, Mom, what if you get hurt or take a fall?” As she shrugged and shook her head from side to side, I pulled out the big mean gun, “Time isn’t going backwards, Mom. What happens if you get disoriented, you know, like become senile or something?”
She looked determined, “When I get to that point, it won’t matter who’s around. It’s now I’m concerned about.”
Oh, I get it, I thought, and responded directly to the point, “Are you asking to move in with me?”
She looked genuinely offended. “Is that why you’re arguing with me? Trust me, we don’t have the same rhythms either. Nobody does.”
I flipped her the palm of my hand. “Exactly, so why eliminate your options.”
“You’re not listening,” she wailed. “I just want to live alone. You can visit. So can your father, for that matter. He has to take his shoes off before he comes in, though.”
Flummoxed, I sighed and moved my head from side to side. She resorted to pleading, “Why won’t you help me find low cost housing for seniors or something? Nothing fancy. Just a room of my own, you know like in that Virginia Woolf book.”
She almost had me, but then I brightened, “I’ll help you set up your own room in this apartment! You can use Dad’s office as a bedroom—or he can. I’ll explain to him that you need a private space.”
“It’s not the same thing,” she protested, looking genuinely dejected.
I was losing patience. She obviously had no idea of the emotional and financial complexities of her request. Thinking it might not be bad to induce a little reality-laced guilt, I tried, “What about Dad, what if something happens to him?”
She looked away, and then turned full face to me. “I don’t wanna take care of him.”
“I don’t. You don’t understand. I’m tired.” She dropped one hand and raised the other, pointing a forefinger. “He’ll outlive me, you’ll see, and you’ll have to take care of him. Good luck to you.”
I was shocked, even though I knew what she meant. My father has never been one to suffer in silence. He requires attention for the smallest of irritations, and he groans loudly over minor aches and pains. I sighed, “What do you want me to do?”
“I told you, find me a place of my own. Nothing big or fancy. I heard about some kind of building for healthy seniors on the Upper West Side, but I can’t remember the name. I hate that. I can’t recall anything I don’t write down. It’s not like I don’t know.” She began punctuating with her index finger, “Now, if I had multiple choices, I could always pick the right one.” She sighed, “ I tell you, getting old is like living in a foreign country. You know the feelings and the ideas, but you don’t have the words.”
I was smiling now. “That happens to me, too! I always say, I don’t have memory loss, I just have a retrieval problem!” Believe me, Mom, I know exactly what you mean.”
She waved a dismissive hand at me. “No, you don’t. When most people forget things, it’s an annoyance. When people my age forget, it’s an omen.”
I had no response to that, but it made me think about people I had already lost. It’s not death that is the horror; it’s the losing of parts: the specter of becoming a drooler or not being able to control your bowels. My wonderful friend Maggie died from cancer of the esophagus in her early forties. She was so sensitive and smart; she kept saying that she never wanted to be a burden. That’s what most people say, of course, especially women. After Maggie was far enough gone, she lost any semblance of rational thought. She was just there fighting for her life, while the rest of us were trying to live ours. It was terribly hard on her family. She had a DNR directive, but she didn’t go quickly, even without life support. Toward the end her eyes filmed over, her cheeks sunk in, and when you forced yourself to move in close, her mouth was dry and foul smelling. From the doorway to Maggie’s room, the child of a family friend whispered “She looks like an alien.”
Mom startled me out of my reveries. “Your brother Jake is only your half brother. He had a different father from you.”
Stunned, I jerked my head back, thinking, is this some kind of joke or provocation, or is my poor mother becoming delusional?
“I know you’re shocked, and it is shameful, but it’s the God’s truth.” She suddenly looked panicky, “Now don’t you go telling Jake I said that; that would be really bad.”
At first I had trouble believing there was any truth in what Mom had reported. Jake was a middle brother, after all, and just a couple of years younger than me. And Mom was a church-going Christian. (Not that that means anything.) Thinking about it, Jake is the only one of us four siblings with red hair….
Suddenly I was mortified, “What about the rest of us? Do I know who my father is?”
Mom, who had looked away after her confession, abruptly looked me straight in the eye. “What do you think I am? Of course not the rest of you.”
“Sorry,” I mumbled as I patted her hand. Withdrawing my hand and pulling back, I announced, “But I still don’t get it.”
She tilted her head a bit. I could tell she was seeing more in the eye than out. Finally, “Your father was not the true love of my life.”
Uh-oh, I thought. “It’s OK, Mom, you don’t have to tell me all this.”
“Well of course I don’t have to!” she snapped. “Who else am I going to tell? I just don’t want this getting back to Jake.”
I suddenly remembered an old black and white print in one of Mom’s boxes of collected photos. As a child I loved to look at it: in a form-fitting sundress, Mom was perched on the hood of an old-fashioned car between two handsome men. Her bare legs were crossed and her right hand was slung casually across the shoulder of one of the fellows while his arm was around her waist. The other man was holding her left hand. All three friends were smiling and mugging for the camera, like they were posing for a movie poster. I wasn’t used to seeing my mother so young, so free, or even so happy.
“Was that your boyfriend?” I had inquired at the time.
She had brushed me away with the back of her hand, saying something like, “Oh, that’s just Larry Winston. I used to have a crush on him, but people would tease me that he was prettier than me.”
Just a few years ago, one of Mom’s sisters had sent her the obituary of Lawrence Winston. I cracked up (behind Mom’s back) when I read, “Mr. Winston, a hair dresser in Washington, DC, is survived by a sister in [someplace or other] Ohio.” Obviously the guy was gay! Mom knew Larry Winston well before she met my father, but the likelihood of Larry fathering Jake? Perhaps this was some kind of regressive fantasy….
I tried, “Are you saying that guy Larry was Jake’s Dad?”
Mom slapped at me. “Of course not! Don’t be stupid. Jake was born long after Larry moved away.” She hesitated, and then continued, “But there was someone else. It happened during the time your father and I were having—you know—problems. You were too young to understand, but I know you’ve heard that story about him going away to find work when you were little? Well, he wasn’t looking for work; he ran off and left me with two little children.”
I had always kind of suspected that, so I wasn’t really thrown by that part of the admission. What she said next, however, left me completely agog. “There was an old family friend who always looked after me. He was old enough to be my father, but I was quite fond of him. We would have the best of talks, even when I was just a young girl. He openly admired me and teased me a lot, too. He was my dream lover, as they say, but he was married. It was an impossible situation in those days. I guess, when your father left, I was particularly lonely and susceptible. Oh, I’m not saying I didn’t cooperate. But then when your father came dragging back a year later, that was the end of that. But I was pregnant, and I knew it.”
She must have noticed my eyes popping and my mouth dropping. She seemed awkward and embarrassed. “You’re old enough to understand such things—at least I hope you are.”
I couldn’t help blurting out, “Does Dad know?”
She rolled her eyes. “He could have figured it out, but I don’t believe that man does much figuring when it comes to me.”
“Shouldn’t Jake be told?” I was on the high road to righteous action.
“Now don’t you go doing that to him,” she replied quickly and emphatically. “Jake’s real father died years ago and there was never any reason to make trouble about all that.”
After falsely reassuring Mom that I was not upset and promising to keep her secret, I went home to think over her request to live alone. I fully intended to dig through the family photos later to check out this so-called family friend to see if Jake looked anything like him. Early the next day, however, Mom, in an extremely agitated state, called me, insisting, “I don’t know what was wrong with me yesterday. Forget all that silly talk. Don’t go looking for an apartment, and don’t say anything to your father.” Then she added quietly, plaintively, “Of course that stuff about Jake: I don’t know why I said all that. Just forget it—please?”
“It’s OK, Mom,” I responded gently but firmly. “I haven’t said a word to anyone, and I don’t intend to.” I knew we would never have that discussion again and that my mother, retreating to the safety of non-disclosure, would never leave my father. So THAT’S why, I’ll never tell…