Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Gift

This is a fictional vignette I wrote awhile back. It's based on an encounter I had with a white-haired woman and her daughter at the grocery store. I wondered about them, but I never saw them again.

The Gift
What can I do? I am an old woman. I did not do the one thing I was supposed to do. It always felt...impossible. It was easier to do nothing. I am just an old, foolish woman.

Today at the grocery store I met someone. She was much younger than I, petite, with a face that was a little worn, though she was dressed like someone of means. But what do I know? I was never a person of means, so I think everyone else has more than I have. She smiled at me as she passed with her grocery cart. I noticed that her gaze lingered on us, my daughter and me. I am used to staring by now, Lord knows.

When my daughter was born 68 years ago right there in our little house on Elmwood Street, we were delighted, my husband and I, to bring this lovely, dark-haired child into our lives. But in time, and after countless doctor visits, we discovered she was deaf. In those days there was no help for people like us so we kept her home and did the best we could. School was out of the question because she could not hear the teachers. Social workers came and went, but no one had the answers we needed. An institution for our sweet girl? Never! But that was the offer and that was unacceptable.

Charlotte grew and was mostly a compliant child, happy and loving, but from time to time she was given to rages. Some days I would have to wear long sleeves because the scratches she left were ragged and deep. After the rage, Charlotte would sit in a corner and rock in her chair, blank-faced and staring at nothing in particular. She seemed happiest when I sang to her—“I’ll Be Seeing You”, “You Are My Sunshine”, “A Bushel and a Peck”. Our hands would dance, and she smiled at my animated face. Sometimes I would imagine she could hear me. 

My husband left us, of course. Men don’t stay when life overwhelms them. Just the mothers do, it seems to me. That’s because we are stronger. But what do I know? I’m just an old, foolish, lonely woman.

And now, in my 89th year, I can see how this will end. It’s because I did not do the one thing I was supposed to do.

The petite woman and I face off at the cashier’s lane as we both arrive at precisely the same time. She defers to me with a nod and I say, “No, we’re not ready.” She approaches, her kind eyes holding on to mine. She asks me if my daughter and I are sisters. I laugh and say no. She tells me I am sweet, and attempts a connection with Charlotte. The woman’s smile and light touch on Charlotte’s arm briefly startles her so I begin to pull away from the smiling woman who hesitates a moment before explaining that  her son has Down syndrome and  she understands Charlotte’s reaction. I nod my head.

“Well…” I say. I’m nodding and nodding as Charlotte and I continue our progress down a different aisle. She stands there, watches us go. I see something in her eyes that I can’t quite identify.  She waves goodbye and I almost call her back. Almost.

I am alone. My daughter is my companion, my one and only love in this world. There is no husband to depend on, and my one sister died twenty years ago from the cancer. Her daughter, my niece Anna, lives far away and we were never close.  She had no patience for Charlotte growing up. When she and my sister would visit, Anna avoided Charlotte the way one avoids a dread disease or a bad smell.

Once, the social worker came to my house and asked, “Don’t you want Charlotte to live with people her own age, where she would be well cared for and have a life of her own?” But I said no one could take care of Charlotte as well as I can. I told her Charlotte was used to me, used to our home and our routines. She loves her room and her stuffed kitty. There is no better place for her. Besides, what would I do without her to care for?

And now, I see how foolish I was. Now I have to do the unthinkable. And it’s because I didn’t do the one thing every mother must do.  Tomorrow, Charlotte and I will go into our small garage. I will strap her into her seat belt, lock the car doors, and turn on the engine. She’ll hold her kitty and I’ll read her favorite books. Good Night Moon. Alice in Wonderland. Alf Goes to Space. I will read them over and over until she falls asleep. Then, and only then, will I allow myself to succumb, hold her close until we break the tethers of the Earth.  God will stretch out his arms and gather us like wildflowers.

Old, stupid woman. I did not do the one thing I was supposed to do in this life.

I did not relinquish my Charlotte to others because I simply could not. She is all I have.

I am writing down instructions for whoever finds us, when I hear a knock on the door. No one comes here except that annoying woman, Joyce, who lives next door and thinks it’s her responsibility to check to see if I’ve broken a hip or something. I open the door. It is not Joyce.

It is the woman from the store. She has brought me my purse. “You left this in your grocery cart.”

I stare at her, and manage an, “Oh!” The orange sun shines just behind her dark- haired curls, the effect creates a halo.

May I come in?” she asks, still smiling, and I think oh, what a lovely smile, just like an angel.

I open the door, invite her in. Charlotte sits in her chair, rocking.