art by M.S. Corley
Melancholia in Bloom
by Damien Walters Grintalis
Every family has a secret magic tucked away in a dusty attic or hidden between the words of a handed-down story. This box is ours. It doesn't look like much, but it's been in our family for a long time. After my mother's death, I found it in her attic with a notebook inside. Now I'll leave the box for Rebecca. I hope she won't just think it an old woman's fancy.
My mother kept scraps of fabric. I was surprised to see neither a trace of fading nor a moth hole. The tiny bits could have been snipped free from their dresses yesterday. I will confess. I didn't believe her words, until I touched one of the pieces. I won't tell Rebecca what I saw. I'll let her discover that herself.
Perhaps it's only a vanity. The mother not quite willing to let go of her child. Who knows? It's almost silly, this keeping hush. I should just tell Rebecca in person instead of writing it down, but would I have believed my mother?
I'd like to think so.
I hate this place--the smell, the withered limbs hidden behind each door, the traces of withered lives hanging in the air. No one comes here to get well, only to wait.
My shoes tap on the tile floor; the sound hovers in the air for a quick instant, then the walls tuck it away. I brought yellow roses this time, and I hold them away from my body so the stink won't linger on my clothes. My mother has never understood why I don't like them; I've never understood why she does.
I take a deep breath before I enter her room and put on a smile that should feel normal by now, but doesn't. It feels like a lie.
When she sees me, her eyes narrow, her lips thin. The nurse acknowledges me with a nod and pats my mother's arm. Adjusts the sheets around her frail body.
"Helen, look, it's Rebecca, your daughter," she says a little too brightly.
My mother would hate this false cheer. I know she would.
"It's a beautiful day today, isn't it?" I say. To fill up the silence, to pretend.
"Well, I'll leave the two of you alone," the nurse says and makes her exit, pulling the door shut behind her.
Images flicker across the screen of the television in the corner, but the volume is so low, even the commercials seem little more than a soft hum. I busy myself arranging the flowers in a vase. My father always gave her yellow roses on her birthday. It isn't her birthday, but at this point, it doesn't matter. The yellow petals should bring a touch of brightness to the room. Instead, they bring a sharp sting of hurt deep inside my chest. I turn to see my mother watching me, her eyes wary. The expression turns her face into a stranger's. Another thing that should feel familiar by now, but even after six months, it doesn't.
"Sarah couldn't come today, Mom, but she sends her love."
In truth, I don't want Sarah to see her this way. I sit beside the bed and take her hand, her skin like tissue paper crumpled then pressed flat again. She pulls away. Makes a gravelly sound low in her throat.
I look down at my lap and think about the day Sarah was born. I remember the way my mother held her close, tears glittering in her eyes, as if it were yesterday instead of eight years ago. The way her voice caught when she sang a lullaby, the same lullaby she said she used to sing to me. I push the memory away and babble about nothing until finally, I let the words fade away. What's the point? My mother isn't here anymore.
Something is… off. I jump at shadows. I can't remember if I locked the door. Last week, I went to put the laundry in and found towels sitting in the washing machine. From the smell, they'd been there for several days.
This morning, I couldn't find my keys. I spent an hour trying to find them, and when I did, they were hanging from the hook, where I always put them. It was strange. I've never been the forgetful type. Maybe it will pass.
My father gave my mother roses for her birthday, their anniversary, for no reason at all. She would always pluck one petal from the roses. Only one. I asked her why once and she smiled, but she didn't answer. I'm sure I do silly things that make Sarah shake her head, too.
Every time I buy them now, I hope they'll trigger something. Some spark that will bring her back, even if only for a moment. Silly, I know.
There are gaps, spaces where names for things used to be. I'd convinced myself it was nothing more than old age, but today, after I went to the supermarket, I sat in the parking lot with my car running, trying to remember if I needed to turn right or left. I wasn't truly scared, but confused. I remembered what the house looked like. I remembered the street name, but I had no idea how to get there.
Luckily, I saw my neighbor, Emma (I remembered her bright yellow Volkswagen without a problem), and I followed her. None of the streets looked familiar, and by the time she turned onto my street, my hands hurt from holding the steering wheel so tight.
I lied. I was frightened. I know I should call the doctor, but that would make it real.
Even now, I replay the day before I found her over and over in my head. Was there something, some clue in her behavior? Her speech? Sarah was running around. Was it possible I missed a forgotten word, a dropped name, in the noise?
She made us lunch. She even cut Sarah's sandwich into triangular shapes - something that Sarah had only started requesting two weeks earlier. If she remembered something like that, how could a day, one single day, strip it all away?
The only thing odd was the way she hugged me before we left. A little tighter, a little longer, than normal, and she looked like she wanted to tell me something. Then Sarah tugged my hand; Mom patted my arm and told me to go. I felt her watching us walk to the car, and I swear she was watching as we drove away from the house. It's probably my imagination, though, embellishing the memory with a wish.
I was cleaning today and I knocked the box aside. Nothing spilled, thank goodness, but one red petal was sitting on the edge, ready to fall. When I touched it, I felt the tingle on, under, my skin, like I did when I touched my mother's fabric scraps. And then it was as if something swooped in and filled up all the spaces in my head.
It was extraordinary. I had no idea the box, the magic, could do this. But I need to remember that these petals belong to Rebecca, not me.
She didn't answer the phone, which wasn't like her, so I went to her house after I dropped Sarah off at school. I found her sitting dull-eyed in her living room, still wearing her nightgown. She cried when I talked to her, shrieked when I took her hands, screamed when the paramedics arrived. But what else what I supposed to do?
I was so sure it was something small. Maybe a seizure or a fall that clouded her thoughts. They gave her a sedative, and as I followed the ambulance to the hospital, I couldn't remember if I told her I loved her the day before. I still can't remember, but I have to believe that deep inside, she knows.
I told myself it was a fluke. My imagination. My hands were shaking when I opened the box, but I had to try it again. I'm sure Rebecca would understand. I know she would. I took one petal out, cupped it in my hand, and felt the soft whisper of magic beneath my skin. A dance without music. A dream without sleep. Like before, the empty spots inside me, inside my head, vanished; like before, it didn't last long enough.
Magic never does.
She babbled the first two months, but everything that came out was a jumble of chaos. Once or twice, I thought I heard her say my name, but no matter how many times I tried to talk to her, she cringed away. I told her stories: The time we went to the beach and I got stung by a jellyfish. How after my tears dried, I realized that she, too, had been stung. The night of my junior prom and how she drove me crazy asking for one more photograph. Just one more. The day of my wedding when she gave me a lace-edged handkerchief that once belonged to her great-grandmother, and how she waved around my eyes so my tears wouldn't run down and ruin my makeup.
I kept waiting for her to wake up. To come back. I brought roses. She tore the petals from one of the blooms and held them tight in her fists, muttering incoherencies all the while. When I took the rest away, she screamed and pulled my hair. I didn't bring them again until her words vanished and the light in her eyes faded.
Rebecca is coming over today, so I used another petal. I felt terrible taking away another piece of something she should have, but I don't want her to see me that other way. She'll worry. She'll insist I call the doctor.
I hope she'll forgive me. I hope she'll understand.
I drive up to the facility, like I do every week, but today I sit in the parking lot with the engine running. The building looms like an empty hotel with each window a glittering reminder that once upon a time, there was joy and laughter. Little of that here, now.
Once, we went on a camping trip to a cabin in the mountains and, in the middle of the night, I climbed into my parents' bed because the noises terrified me. My mother told me that the bugs and the forest animals were having a party, and if I listened very carefully, I would be able to hear them laughing. She didn't make me go back to my own bed, though. She simply scooted over so I had enough room. I was young, younger than Sarah is now.
My fingers curl tight around the steering wheel. My knuckles turn white. I can't do it. I can't face the stranger today. She doesn't know who I am anymore. She won't know I wasn't there.
I hate this. I hate all of it. Tears well up in my eyes. Spill over my lashes. As I drive away, I promise myself I'll come next week. I just can't face her today.
My fingertips grow cold when the magic starts to fade. My thoughts twist and turn and the words spiral out to nowhere. A ribbon I can't catch, no matter how hard I try.
One week turns into two. Then three. I go back on a rainy Sunday afternoon and get out of my car quickly, before I can change my mind. The nurse smiles, but I see the accusation in her eyes. I don't smile back.
Rebecca is coming over today. I sat with the box for an hour, afraid to use another petal, but too afraid not to. Is one more day with my daughter too much to want?
In the end, I plucked one from the box and held it tight in my hand. My skin danced and I felt the missing words, the missing spaces, return. I felt like myself again. I felt alive.
What will happen when I forget the magic inside the roses? When I stumble around in my apartment, frightened by the sights and the sounds, like a drowning woman in a dark ocean of forgetting? When I forget that the box is my life preserver? When I touch the roses, they say, "Helen, your name is Helen."
What will happen when I forget they're telling the truth?
When the doctor said she had Alzheimer's, all the air rushed from my lungs.
"But I saw her yesterday and she was fine."
I hid my hands so he couldn't see my fingers twist. The doctor said nothing for several long minutes, but I saw in his eyes that he thought I was lying.
"We spent all day together," I said. "All day. She was perfectly fine. And I saw her a week before that and she was fine then, too. I would have seen something if…" The words got caught in the tears I couldn't hold back. For several long minutes that felt like hours, I cried into my hands, feeling the weight of his gaze.
"In this stage, sometimes patients do exhibit moments of clarity. The disease affects everyone differently, and," he added kindly, "sometimes we see what we want to see."
But I know who I saw. My mother, not a stranger.
The box is half empty now. I should stop. I know I should. But I don't want to give Rebecca up yet. I don't want to give up myself yet. I hope she doesn't hate me for this.
I brought pink roses this time. My father gave them to her sometimes. Not often, but enough. When I was a teenager, I finally realized the pink roses were apologies. After I put the flowers in the vase, I turn around. Her eyes are blank; her mouth slack.
I take a deep breath. "We have to sell your house, Mom. I'm so sorry, I didn't want to, but we can't afford not to, and I refuse to put you in one of those other places, especially since we don't know how long you'll be… here."
She says nothing. I know she doesn't understand what I'm saying, but I fight the urge to wither beneath her gaze. After a time, I kiss her forehead and smooth back her hair.
"I'll see you next week," I say.
I take her hand. She doesn't pull away, but I might as well be holding a mannequin.
I'm afraid. I'm so afraid. There's only one petal left and Rebecca and Sarah are coming over today. I should save it for her so she'll believe, so she'll save up little bits and pieces and tuck them away for Sarah, but I'm not ready to say goodbye.
I stand in my mother's living room, staring at all the knick-knacks and whatnots. For a brief moment, I contemplate hiring several college students to come in and cart everything away, but then I see the tiny carved lion my father brought back from a business trip to Africa. Sarah always loved to play with it when she was a toddler. I was always afraid she'd break it. My mother always brushed my concerns away with a small wave of her hand and a smile.
I start with her bedroom, boxing up things to donate and things to keep. In her jewelry box, I find a gaudy ring I bought for her at a school holiday sale and a bracelet of wooden beads Sarah made for her in kindergarten. I run my fingers over them and smile. I can't believe she kept all this stuff.
A wooden box I vaguely remember seeing when I was a child sits on her bedside table. When I open it, I smell a hint of roses and wave my hand in front of my face to disperse the scent. A diary, like something a teenage girl would keep, is inside the box. Funny, I never knew my mother kept a diary. I sit down on the edge of her bed and start to read.
When Rebecca left, I tidied up. Made sure the laundry was folded and put away. Made sure the necessary papers in my desk were organized so they'll be easy for her to find. I can feel the memories starting to fade again. No matter how tight I hold on, they slip away.
I know I shouldn't complain. I've had a good life. I married a kind, loving man. I had a loving daughter. I regret I won't see my granddaughter grow to adulthood, but I'm grateful for the time I've had. Maybe I was greedy.
I hope I'm not too much of a burden. It hurts to forget, but sometimes it hurts even more to remember.
I put the diary down after I've read a few of the entries and scrub my face with my hands. I can't bear to read any more. Judging by the smell that clings to the wood, the box is where she kept all the petals she'd plucked over the years, but did she really think they were magicked into… something? It explains why she tried to tear apart the roses in the hospital.
My hands curl into fists. How could I have been so blind? How could I have not seen the signs? It's obvious she knew something was wrong, and she was right about the doctor. I would have insisted she go. No, I would have demanded. If I had, maybe they could have slowed things down somehow. Maybe they could have done something. Why did she hide it from me? Did she think I'd love her any less? Then I think of the vacant eyes. The limp hand.
I cry into my hands until my throat aches. How I wish life was a children's story with magic and a happy ending instead of a memoir of illness and funeral plans.
With tears still in my eyes, I carry the box out to the pile of things to be donated. Maybe the disease made her think it was magic, but all it is now is a reminder of my failure. I tuck the diary in my purse. Maybe one day I'll read the rest, but I don't think so. I don't want to remember a woman rambling about nonsense. I'd rather remember her the way she was.
I know I don't have long now. My fingertips are cold and I can feel the pieces of me straining to break free. I hope you've found this diary. I hope you've read the words. I know it might seem crazy, but trust me. The box works. No matter what you choose to put in it, it will keep the memories tight until you take them out. I'm sorry I didn't save a petal for you to prove it, but please, you have to believe me.
Memories are the real magic, perhaps the only pure magic left in the world. Hold them tight as long as you can.
Please be kind to the old woman I will become. I have to believe that somewhere deep inside she remembers that you are her daughter and that she loves you.
This story was first published on Friday, June 28th, 2013