War Zone, Part III
This story contains mature or graphic content.
Of course, my words started world war whatever—there’d been too many to count.
My mother called me ungrateful and my father swore at me and asked if I realized how hard it was for him to get off work in the middle of the day to pick me up at the airport.
“Who do you think you are,” he demanded, “the Queen of Sheba?”
So when we pulled up in front of the little white clapboard house and my mother collapsed onto the couch and my father said he didn’t live there any more and that he’d be back with groceries later that day, all I could think to do was to begin to answer the dozens of demands that were waiting for me.
My mother mumbled that my father was a cheating bastard and was sleeping in the back of his station wagon. He did eventually bring the groceries.
There was a bucket in the middle of the kitchen floor, in front of the empty spaces where the washer and dryer had been. The bucket was blue plastic and held about two gallons of liquid. The bucket was filled with bloody shirts and huge clots of blood and some kind of human tissue.
“Those shirts need to be washed in cold water,” my mother instructed. “To get the blood out.”
Years of denying my feelings kept my stomach contents from spilling onto the floor as I took in her words. It also helped to remember that I would have to clean up any messes that came from my own body as well as my mother’s.
No one had bothered to prepare me for what I’d be facing. I was simply summoned. My uncle showed up on campus one day and poof! I had to leave. My father, who in my childhood had occasionally said a sentence or two that made sense, like when my mother threw all the leftovers into a pot and called it ‘goulash’ and my father saw that it made me sick, well, that time he’d named the obvious for me, that the ‘goulash’ wasn’t fit to eat.
But this time, he’d said nothing.
I knew that even if I complained that there was no washer and dryer that no one would care so I gritted my teeth and used my fingernails to scrub the blood out of the shirts. I put the clots, some bigger than both of my hands, into plastic bags and threw them in the trash.
My parents were members of a fundamentalist religious group that believed that going to doctors was a sin. Other than taking a baby food jar full of urine to a Naturopath, my mother had refused all medical attention. She took care of her bedsores by smearing Desitin all over them, despite the warning on the label that smearing the oily paste on weeping sores could make them worse.
She used cotton balls to pad the sores. Each night she threw the rusty-colored used cotton all over the bedroom floor as she applied fresh, clean cotton. The piles of smelly cotton around her bed were so deep that it took three large plastic trash bags to gather them up.
As I tried to sleep in my father’s empty bed, breathing through my mouth to avoid as much of the rotting flesh smell rolling from my mother’s body as I could, I realized that my warning that I could only stay a couple weeks meant absolutely nothing.
So I cleaned, mopped, and made fresh green drink and carrot juice and raw liver juice using a huge tower-shaped juice press that I had to work by hand. I ate frozen pizza, drank diet cola, and took my sister’s cat and her kittens to the pound because no one had cleaned the litter box so there was feces all over the bathroom and so many fleas in there that no one could use the toilet.
I stayed up watching television with my mother until four AM because she was sure that if she closed her eyes for too long she’d die. I wondered, with her being in so much pain, why she was so afraid to die. She hadn’t seemed to enjoy life too much.
The one good thing that happened during that time was that my mother spouted off at the ineffectual yet well-meaning church members who called to ask how she was doing.
“What do you care?” she shrieked. “You don’t really care about me. No one does.”
She was right. The church members were mostly concerned with proving that their way of life really was the only right way for everyone to live. Since watching someone die of cancer didn’t fit into their faith healing paradigm, they weren’t eager to bring her meals or help with household chores.
When she died, my father pulled up the rug as soon as the coroner left because the huge bedsores had attracted flies and the flies had produced maggots. One of his rare flickers of humanity surfaced as he took the rug out.
“That was bad,” he said.
Then he called a medical school and tried to have her body donated for scientific research.
“It’s cheaper than a funeral,” he explained.
I didn’t ask why he hadn’t planned for my mother’s funeral. He’d never had money, at least as long as I’d known him. When the medical school called and demanded what we thought we were doing, donating a body in such terrible condition, and insisting that my father pick up my mother’s body immediately, and when my mother’s relatives called from California absolutely livid that no one had told them my mother had died, I crumpled.
“I can’t take it any more!” I cried, heedless of what my father would do. I blubbered and cried, more for myself and the neglect, abuse and manipulation I’d endured than for my mother.
I was way too old for my father to get out his belt and whip me into silence. So instead, he took charge at long last of my mother’s illness.
He picked up her body, still in the body bag the coroner had placed her in and drove her home in his rusty red station wagon. Her body lay in the back of the station wagon in the late October sun while he called around until he found a ‘good deal’ at a crematorium. So at least figuratively, my parents slept in the same place at least for a few hours that day.
He placated the relatives by promising to make a pictorial memorial of my mother’s life. Which of course he never did. What he did do was plunk the eight by eight-inch cardboard box that contained the grayish-white ashes and bits of bone that had once been my mother on top of the bookcase beside the living room window.
I know what was in the box because a few weeks after she died, I took down the box and peeked inside.
The first night after my mother died, the house seemed to sigh in relief. A dark presence lifted so that even the dusty mahogany-colored paneling in the living room seemed brighter. Though it was November, I smelled a fresh breeze blowing through the little house.
As I packed my things after reminding my uncle that he’d promised to pay for my flight back to California, I thought again of Jack London’s dog-wolf character, Buck. I felt sound swelling in my throat and for once I didn’t hold back.
I howled, not caring who heard. That howl was my own wild call, my farewell to a childhood that never was, my own declaration of my right to exist. I never saw my childhood home again. I was never beaten, starved, or enslaved again.
When my father dropped me off at the airport, I didn’t hug him goodbye. I let a rebellious thought rise and express itself. I turned to him and nodded a curt farewell.
“I hope I never see you again.”
I turned toward the boarding gate and didn’t look back.