Under the Sweet Gums

I push her through the automatic doors into a blindingly beautiful day. Past the others in their wheelchairs under the shadow of the main entrance overhang. I want her all to myself. When we leave the shade, my mother forms two shelves above her eyes with her hands. “I lost my sunglasses,” she says cheerfully and I picture the three white visors I put into a box yesterday. Mom’s scalp is as pink as a newborn mouse beneath her perfect white hair.

We head around the back of the building and enter a canopy of sweet gums. I think of my mother’s own sweet gums, the three lonely teeth poking up from her lower jaw, never pulled, her uppers misplaced and gone, necessitating a pureed diet. My brother told me the other night he’d left her eating pizza with a spoon. Everything she eats goes through a blender. I park Mom beside a picnic table and lay on my back on the bench so I can admire the blue post-hurricane sky with its bright, white clouds.

Mom and I sit under the trees for a long time, not caring if we ever return to her nursing home room. We talk about whatever comes to mind, like I used to do with my school mates. A gum ball hits the ground making me jump, and Mom says, “You’re a Horton – they have that trait.” She retells the story about her mother offending a man in line at the bank after hearing a sharp noise and responding with an involuntary, “Oh my dear!” Crouching over the keys he has just dropped, the man looks up at her and says, “I am NOT your dear!”

I flew four hundred miles north this morning out of Hurricane Florence’s slippery, wet grasp to get a head start on packing my mother’s apartment. There was plenty of stuff in there when my mother went to Shippensburg State Health Care Center in February, and more than plenty now. My father spends the day at the apartment and sleeps at my brother, John’s house. He is a man who rarely throws anything away.

The knight in shining armor here is my brother, Michael. Several months ago, Michael moved out from Colorado with a plan to shepherd my parents into their twilight years using his background in Healthcare. With his patient support, my father has bought a trailer big enough for himself, Michael, and Mom and then set his mind to a State-approved transition plan for Mom’s release. No easy feat.

None of Michael’s five siblings have been able to accomplish this miracle, and not for want of trying. Michael has a special way with Dad. Maybe it’s because Michael doesn’t carry his childhood baggage the way the rest of us do. Or maybe Dad is hearing him more clearly because Michael has been away for twenty years. Maybe, as James suspects, Dad doesn’t trust his married sons because they under the influence of women. Joe, the priest, is under the influence of the Catholic Church. And I, myself, am a woman. Or, maybe Dad is finally ready to accept reality. Most likely, Dad has been pushed off dead center by all of the above.

The next day I crack open the apartment door and take a look around. Dad is asleep in the other room. I’m alarmed by the immensity of the task, every horizontal surface, including much of the floor, cloaked in a shambling collage of plastic Madonnas, torn envelopes, food, tissues, documents, photographs, and clothes. My brothers coined a term for parental sprawl. They called it the shifting sands. “We don’t dare put anything down,” they said, “Or it might disappear under the shifting sands.” On one of his recent visits, Joe lost his cell phone for half a day.

The windows are closed to protect my father from pollen. The stagnant air is revolting, and I fight the urge to bolt. Stymied, but determined, I decide to work my way in from the door. I open the hall closet door to my left, fold eight inches of hanging clothes around their hangers, and push them to the bottom of a large box. When that box is full, I tape up a smaller one for audio tapes. Two hours later, I’ve got everything out of the closet and packed in my bright yellow rented Jeep Renegade.

I’m joined by others after they get off work and Dad has been shuttled to John’s house. We are careful not to pack the things Dad will miss, things on and around the couch and the bed, and in the kitchen and bathroom. We hope to upset him as little as possible.

The cavalry arrives Saturday morning, James with a U-Haul truck, Bob with his credit card and tool kit, and John’s son, Brandon join Michael, John, Darla, and me. I dub us the Magnificent Seven. Before noon everything is out and Darla spends the rest of the day cleaning. Bob buys a file cabinet and two book shelves. Michael unloads a gift from his friend, Dave, a sturdy dining set made of real wood. Brandon is everywhere with energy and muscle. James helps Bob assemble the book shelves and populates them with books and movies. John goes back and forth to his house, helping our temporarily-displaced father with his meals. I wash bedding and towels and make the beds. Michael mows the lawn.

At 3:00 PM we take a break and go see Mom. It isn’t every day she gets to see five of her six children at once. We wheel her out to the sweet gums where she basks in our love. James shows her the picture he took of her couch in the new place and her face radiates joy. We sit under the sweet gums, drenched in team work and a sense of closure, breathing the clean air of a fresh start.

Bob, John, Jim, Michael, Mom, and Camille
Bob, John, Jim, Michael, Mom, and Camille

By Camille Armantrout

Camille lives with her soul mate Bob in the back woods of central North Carolina where she hikes, gardens, cooks, and writes.

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