Some health problems attack methodically — cancer, heart disease, the slow drain of the body’s vigor as it ages. But more worrisome are the unpredictable things that happen without warning, when hard luck and outside forces coauthor narratives of tragedy.
There’s a reason I often walk the same route home. A reason why I routinely eat the same lunch at work, carefully counting calories and carbohydrates. If I learned anything from all that math in school, it’s easier to solve for X if you limit the number of other variables.
No surprises allowed. Ever. I never want to mutter I don’t know why X happened. So I keep the algorithms of my days coded tight and consistent.
My mother often chooses to improvise. Instead of patiently waiting for me or my brothers to visit, she climbed onto a step stool to change a light bulb that was just out of reach. After a clumsy fall, a cognitive fog settled in her brain, with no sign of lifting.
She gets better, then worse. X happened. I don’t know why. Now I’m stuck trying to find answers to my mom’s cold equations.
This hospital has become a familiar destination that we return to yet would prefer to avoid. The walls are painted a soothing shade of sage, but everything else feels numbly uncomfortable. My mother is more often asleep than she is awake. The medical machines continue bleeping their desperate cadence, blending with the sterile drone of a television that is on only to fill the awkward silence. The uncertain trajectory of recovery stumbles like a drunk down a dark hallway.
After the accident, my mom stops noticing things, aside from an occasional insect creeping along the floorboards. Or a wayward moth flitting against a smudged windowpane. Confusion enters her mind deliberately like syrup through an IV. I visit every few days for an overnight. She always recognizes me, but as somebody else – one of my brothers, or the ghost of my father, or some former co-worker whose name pops up in her mental scrapbook quicker than mine. A spider in the corner promises to stay on his side of the room while sadness collects like dust on the sheer curtains.
It’s late October, so all the critters outside instinctively seek warmth once it vanishes. Start their annual home invasions, seeking asylum, trying to become autumnal refugees. Notice how falling temps can make feral things yearn for a domestic existence. Mice hide behind appliances while boxelder bugs congregate in cellars. Pulling into the driveway after dark, I spot a raccoon loitering by the garage, wondering why all the trash cans remain empty. Squirrels leave paw print graffiti in the frost on the deck, linger in the yard at sunrise, and nip off the ends of oak branches. Lately, the animals seem bolder. Mom’s never home.
Without notice, the landlord cuts down two maple trees outside my window. Suddenly there are gangs of displaced birds I’ve never noticed before, panhandling for crumbs on the sidewalk. The insects that feasted on our blood all summer slowly vanish as autumn rises. Now only bite occasionally during unseasonably warm days. My dogs succumb to untamable impulses whenever I leave them alone too long, shitting in the hallway and gnawing on the shoes by the front door. Nothing but silence and pet dander floating through an empty apartment, rent money paid on time just for furniture to amass more dust.
In rehab, the therapist asks Mom to name the animals on the flashcards — dog, horse, cow.
Each identification takes more effort than the previous one. Her attention oscillates, exhibits the half-life of human memory. Laughing, she remembers a Holstein her parents had on the farm of her childhood, then gazes at the linoleum, paralyzed by muddled reasoning. Answers gestate awkwardly in her mind, arthritic hands forcing plastic triangles into star-shaped holes. What is your name? What city are we in? What day is your birthday?
She rolls her eyes, impatient with the lady who cheerfully interrogates her— cat, pig, mouse.
Over the next few visits, she learns new animals. Rediscovers facts she already knew, like unearthing jars of money that she forgot were buried in her garden.
Each week, panic skulks like an untamed beast outside the clinic and refuses to leave. Words catch in her throat like fishbones and choke her mid-response. Elephant, tiger, alligator.
Mom’s tentative cadence mimics the sluggish pace of recovery. There’s a mythical creature inside me that must be slain, along with the reflexive anxiety I feel whenever a phone rings unexpectedly.
Can you say one more on your own?
She pauses, then utters dragon.
In fiction, mothers often get taken for granted. Literature, like the blues, is a refuge for those with tattered souls, uneasy hearts, and woeful sighs. Weary-eyed with ragged patience, they wander through hallways handcuffed by regrets. Reluctantly wallow in minor losses. Clutch onto them like flashlights during a blackout. Collect toxic relationships and familial sacrifices like Girl Scout merit badges, then wear them with silent pride. The truth is, I’ve figuratively killed more literary mothers than I’ve revived, perpetually grieving over their corpses. They start to litter attics and crawlspaces. Chubby and slender. Hungover and hopeless. Youthful and senile.
Mom would sit at the kitchen table, her morning coffee adjacent to a newspaper folded awkwardly to the page with the brainteasers. Handwriting indecipherable as cuneiform, crosswords graffitied with scribbles, sloppy proof of her daily ritual to remain sharp. You gotta use it or lose it. Solve each 11 down, every 32 across. How I helped with the clues that stumped her, the ones about computers or pop culture. How my memory also seems sketchy since I can’t recall precisely when Mom stopped working those puzzles. How everyone’s identity degrades, eventually, leaving only what we haven’t forgotten about ourselves, yet.
Adrian S. Potter
Adrian S. Potter writes poetry and prose in Minnesota. He is the author of the poetry collection Everything Wrong Feels Right (Portage Press, 2019) and the forthcoming book Fractured Epiphanies from Stillhouse Press. Some past or forthcoming publication credits include North American Review, Obsidian, The Comstock Review, and Kansas City Voices. Visit him online at http://adrianspotter.com/.