by Emily Lackey
Children always follow the mother. That’s what my mother always used to say. And it was true for my sister Kelly and me. Every time our worlds fell apart, we would end up in our mother’s kitchen, washing the dishes and sitting at her pockmarked table until light returned to the world, sometimes just at its edges. Even after so many years, what my mother said was still true. How else could I explain why I visited my mother every day once she moved into a nursing home? How else could I explain why my oldest daughter, April, followed me there too, coming every day after her twelve-hour shift ended and refilling my mother’s cup with water and thickener so she wouldn’t choke? We took turns, the two of us, stirring the pureed food the underpaid dining staff delivered on plates, adjusting my mother’s legs on the pillow we propped under them, and righting her head that, lately, seemed too heavy for her neck.
What my mother’s adage didn’t explain, however, was why my youngest daughter, Caitlin, had decided to move three states away to go back to school and really invest in her work as an artist. Caitlin would say that she moved away because her therapist, Rebecca, said she needed to start making decisions for herself for a change, but who knows. What Rebecca said to my daughter in the privacy of her vanilla and cinnamon scented office was doctor-patient privilege, so I don’t know if any of that was true.
“Do you think I should call Caitlin?” I asked April. She was spooning pureed turkey into my mother’s mouth, opening her mouth wide as if to demonstrate. “She looks worse today, don’t you think?”
“She looks fine,” April said, scraping a spill from my mother’s chin and bringing it back for a second try.
Before the nursing home, I barely saw my mother. She was always out of town or busy running errands or hiking in the woods or, toward the end, letting the phone ring and ring forever without picking up. But all it took to finally convince me that she needed help was one surprise visit and a hole burned through the door of her microwave. When I asked her what had happened, she said she didn’t know, that she lost a few days in there somewhere.
The decision was easy after that. It was easier having her here where I knew she was being taken care of. Plus I could see her whenever I wanted, which very quickly became every day, partly out of guilt and partly because I liked making her room feel like home, lugging bins of seasonal decorations into the nursing home every few months and sitting with her during craft time so she wasn’t so alone.
Craft time was my favorite time. After a few years in the nursing home, my mother had stopped participating, but I would still cut out the orange leaves and pink hearts and blue eggs and spread the backs of whatever holiday-themed shapes we were making with glue so that all my mother had to do was hold them in her hand and stick them just about anywhere. Most of the residents left their art projects on the table when they were done, but I took each of the things my mother made home. I lined them up in every room, until, eventually, my house was full of snowmen made from painted tomato cans and turkey headbands cut into the shape of my mother’s hands.
I didn’t know why April couldn’t see what I saw—how my mother’s physical state was getting worse every day—but it was the thing we fought about the most. Some days I asked April more than once if she thought today was the day, if I should call Caitlin and tell her to come home, because it was really happening this time, wasn’t it? My mother was really dying.
“She’s still eating,” April said. “People who are dying don’t eat three meals a day.”
“She’s barely eating,” I said, which was partly true, because she had been losing weight consistently ever since she moved into the home, even though she sometimes devoured an entire plate of dessert without ever seeming to chew. The other day April brought a chocolate milkshake from McDonald’s that my mother sucked down without stopping to breathe.
But the next day the nurse handed me my mother’s weekly report and it said she had lost 2.7 pounds.
“That’s almost half a pound a day,” I said to April when she arrived, holding the paper out like some sort of proof. “I’m calling your sister.”
“Fine,” April said, tossing the report on the radiator. “But she’s not going to come.”
“Why wouldn’t she come?”
“It’s mid-terms,” April said. “She’s busy.”
April didn’t have to remind me how busy Caitlin was. Every night I scrolled through the column of unanswered text messages on my phone that I had sent her in the weeks since we last spoke. Some nights I would calculate the time in between timestamps like a checkbook that wouldn’t balance.
“She’ll come,” I said, lifting a forkful of mashed peas to my mother’s mouth. She kept her mouth firmly shut.
“Here,” April said, bringing a spoonful of cherry pie to my mother’s mouth, and my mother’s blue eyes widened when she wrapped her lips around it.
It had been fewer than twenty-four hours since I called Caitlin and left a message telling her that this was it, that she needed to come, and then there she was, standing in the doorway to my mother’s room while April changed her sheets, looking too afraid to come in.
“Mom?” she said. It wasn’t that long ago that Caitlin called me “Mommy,” but when she started seeing Rebecca every Tuesday at 1 p.m. that all changed.
I rushed over to her and wrapped my arms around her full waist. “You still smell the same,” I said, burying my nose in her neck. Caitlin always smelled like line-dried laundry and a specific kind of fabric softener that I never could find. One Saturday I spent an entire afternoon in the detergent aisle, unscrewing caps and trying to find the one that smelled exactly like her.
Caitlin pulled away.
“Mom,” she said. “Please.”
I stepped back.
“How’s grandma?” she asked.
I gestured toward my mother who was sitting in her chair, more shriveled and frail, I thought, than ever before. Last week they determined she was a fall risk, which meant now there was a cord clipped to her shirt that sounded an alarm every time she tried to stand. “Doesn’t she look terrible?”
Caitlin didn’t say anything. She took a step into the room.
“Hi, Grandma,” she said.
“She can’t hear you from there,” April said, waving Caitlin over to stand by her side.
It was rare to see April and Caitlin together. How long had it been? Four months? Five years? That was probably my fault. Wasn’t everything the mother’s fault? I imagine that’s what Rebecca said in her sessions with Caitlin, even though she didn’t know that it was really because of the age difference—seven years—that they were so distant. That and the fact that they had spent so much of their lives living apart. They were never close like my sister and I had been. Until the day she died, Kelly and I were inseparable, inextricable.
I didn’t know what was worse: thinking about how much better my sister would have been at caring for my mother if she were still alive, or thinking about how much my mother would have preferred to be cared for by my sister. It was true, I was sure of it, because on the rare days that my mother spoke, she always called me by my sister’s name.
“I’m not Kelly,” I’d say loudly in her ear. “I’m Laura. Kelly died, remember?”
One time, when I was running late, I found April and my mother in the reading room, talking up a storm.
“Remember that time we drove to Syracuse in that snowstorm?” I heard my mother say. Except it hadn’t been April she had driven with, it had been Kelly.
“I do,” April said, putting her face close to my mother’s.
“What was that play you were in?” My mother squinted her eyes and tried to remember.
I walked over to them quickly and put an end to it.
“April, stop it,” I said. “She thinks you’re Kelly.”
“So?” April said.
“So you’re confusing her.”
“What does it matter as long as she’s talking?”
Caitlin had always reminded me of Kelly in so many ways, which was why it confused me to see her like that, still standing in the doorway to my mother’s bedroom, still refusing to come any closer.
“Don’t be such a baby,” April said, pushing Caitlin toward my mother. “It’s just Grandma.”
Caitlin arrived just before arts and crafts time, which was perfect, because almost every day I told Rhonda, the woman who ran afternoon activities, that my daughter was a painter and that she probably got it from my mother, because would you look—just look—at the amazing work she did today.
It amazed me, really, how talent could be passed down like that: the smallest inkling of artistic ability in my mother making its way down through Kelly, who became an actress, and then into Caitlin, whose work I hadn’t seen in person lately but always liked when she posted a picture of it on Instagram. Artistic talent must be some sort of recessive gene, because instead of blue eyes and blonde hair, Caitlin inherited the ability to make sense of the world in a way that April and I never had. Sometimes it seemed like Caitlin was living a version of my mother’s life—or maybe Kelly’s—that she couldn’t anymore: traveling to France and Florence and some place in Germany—or was it Holland?—to study the thing that she loved. At least that’s what I told myself every time I felt that sick feeling, picturing Caitlin’s body so far away from mine or suspended over an ocean for eight hours at a time.
Rhonda was standing in the middle of the room, the tables arranged in a large square around her so that all of the residents could hear and see as she explained the day’s project.
“Rhonda,” I said, waving her over as April wheeled my mother into the room. “This is my daughter, Caitlin. The one I’ve been telling you about.”
“Oh, the painter!” she said, leaning across the table to shake Caitlin’s hand.
“Actually,” Caitlin said, “I’m a printmaker.”
“It’s sort of like a painter,” I said quickly. “She paints things, but just on plates.”
“Like dinner plates?” Rhonda asked.
April was pushing my mother over to the far side of the table where there was space for us to sit.
“No,” Caitlin said. “Not like that at all.”
I didn’t know why Caitlin was being so difficult, but sometimes she got like that, defensive of her art and her decision to go back to school and the specifics of how she spent her time as an artist. I blamed her father, really, who was always talking to her about her work as if it were a hobby.
“Are you really still doing that art stuff?” he apparently asked the last time she visited him in Boston. After that, she told me later, she couldn’t see him anymore.
“You know how dad is. If it isn’t something that contributes to a capitalist society, it isn’t real work. Until he can respect how I choose to live my life, I can’t respect him.”
If you asked me, that sounded like something Rebecca would have said, not Caitlin, but when she reported the conversation back to me, I did my best to be supportive, nodding my head and telling her of course she was right.
“That’s just like your father,” I said, putting my hand on her shoulder and rubbing the curve of her collarbone.
Rhonda was back in the center of the tables, holding up a carton of hardboiled eggs. “Today,” she paused for effect, “we’re going to have an Easter egg hunt!” She brought the egg carton close to each of the residents. “But first we need to paint our eggs.”
“Did you hear that, Caitlin?” I asked. “Painting Easter eggs.”
“Mom,” she said. “We’re Jewish.” She pulled one of the chairs back from the table so that she was sitting outside of the circle.
“It’s still painting,” I said. “Come closer. Come sit next to Grandma.”
Caitlin shook her head and stayed where she was. She was watching Darlene then, the woman who always refused to sit still during craft time and would wheel herself around the room aimlessly with her feet. That day she had gotten herself stuck in the corner and was calling out, over and over again, “Help, help, help, help, help.”
April was on the other side of my mother, holding an egg close to her face and speaking softly into her ear. “What color should we paint these, Grandma?”
“Green,” my mother said, the word catching in her throat so that it sounded more like a groan.
“That’s Darlene,” I said comfortingly to Caitlin. “If you try to help her, she’ll just wind up back in the corner in a matter of minutes.”
Caitlin kept staring.
“First things first!” Rhonda called. “We have to get our brushes wet!” She demonstrated dipping the brush in a Dixie cup.
“Here, Mom,” I said, bringing the cup of water to her brush so that she wouldn’t miss. April had already wet it, though, the oval of green watercolor paint already a puddle. April was always jumping ahead during activity hour, letting my mother start before all the other residents had their supplies or not following the directions so that she ended up with an Easter bandana instead of a bonnet.
“Let Caitlin help,” I said, pushing April’s hand away. I leaned toward my mother and raised my voice. “Caitlin is a PAIN-TER, Mom. A PAIN-TER. Can you believe that? Another artist in the FAM-I-LY.”
“Why are you talking to her like that?” Caitlin asked from behind me.
“Honey, she can’t hear,” I said.
“No, I know she can’t hear,” she said. “But she’s not stupid.”
I stared at her for a second and then turned back around so fast, I spilled the green water across the table.
“I’ll get it,” April said, getting up for paper towels, but Rhonda was already there with a rag.
She picked up the cup and wiped the table beneath it. “You know what I always say,” she singsonged. “There’s no use crying over spilled paint!”
“Want to come over for dinner?” I asked April in the parking lot. “It will be fun,” I said. “Like old times.” I was smiling at my two daughters, but April was looking down and searching for her keys. I offered the eggs my mother had painted to Caitlin, but she waved them away.
“Grandma made these,” I reminded her. “You should keep them.”
“She didn’t really, Mom,” she said and slid her leather coat over her shoulders.
Before we had left, I wrapped a sweater around my mother’s shoulders and put a knit hat on her head. From the doorway she looked so small, like Kelly when she used to sneak into my room at night or Caitlin when she’d beg me to sit at the foot of her bed until she fell asleep.
Caitlin wouldn’t demand anything of me now, because when I asked her at dinner that night how she thought grandma looked, she took a sip of her wine and looked at April.
“What?” I said.
“Nothing,” April said.
“Have you two been talking? Tell me.”
Caitlin put her wine glass down and folded her arms across her chest.
“It’s just—“ April said. She stopped. She looked at Caitlin.
What was it with those two?
“We want to say this in a way that respects your emotional perspective,“ Caitlin said, and I felt it instantly: that feeling that felt as if we were being watched, as if Rebecca was in the room with us, taking notes on our every move, her tortoiseshell glasses low on her nose. I pictured her straight bob swaying as she turned her head to hear each of us completely. I hear you, Laura, she would probably say, but are you hearing each other?
“You can say it, sweetie,” I said, keeping my voice low.
“It’s just that,” she tried, “Grandma doesn’t look any different than she did the last time I saw her.”
“Caitlin,” I said, trying to stay steady. “Grandma is dying. You may not be emotionally prepared to accept that fact,” I said, using language I thought Rebecca would be proud of, “but it’s true.”
“I know she’s dying,” Caitlin said. “But not anytime soon. She looks the same as she did in September.”
I placed my hands flat on the table. “Maybe you can’t see it. You don’t see her every day like I do. You don’t see her losing weight. You don’t see her not eating. You don’t see her wasting away.” I took a long sip of my wine. “Maybe if you were here more,” I said gently, “you would see it.”
“April’s here,” Caitlin said, pointing in April’s direction. “Do you see it, April?”
April didn’t move. We both stared at her.
“Well, she’s not getting better,” April said cautiously.
“Oh, don’t be so diplomatic,” I said. “Pick a side.”
“See?” Caitlin said, turning to April, and I knew it then: they had been talking.
There was a minute where no one spoke, and I could feel that feeling that I sometimes felt when I was all by myself. It came out of nowhere most of the time, and most of the time I thought it was just me missing Caitlin. I’d be driving to Costco on a Sunday or sorting the mail on a Monday, and I would feel it, that sort of disbelief, yawning open beneath me, that something I loved that much could be gone.
But Caitlin was right there, which meant it couldn’t be her.
“Maybe you’re the one who can’t see it,” Caitlin said. “It’s difficult to see beyond the stories we’ve grown emotionally attached to.”
“What does that even mean?” My voice was getting higher.
“She’s your mother,” Caitlin said. “You love her. And you’ve made taking care of her your entire life.” She pointed to April. “But April tells me. She says you go there every day. She says you spend every free minute taking care of her.”
“That’s what good daughters do,” I said.
Caitlin waved her wine glass across the room, gesturing to the things my mother had made. “Oh, come on, Mom,” she said. “Look at this place. You’re treating her like she’s your child. You don’t think it’s a problem that you’re infantilizing your own mother?”
“Is that what your therapist says?”
“Mom,” April said like a warning.
“I’m trying to help,” Caitlin said, steadying her voice, trying to stay calm. “I know it must be hard without Aunt Kelly. All of the emotional labor of caring for an older parent has fallen on you. But I just—I don’t get it. We barely saw her when she was well, and we lived in the same town. Wasn’t she a terrible mother to you guys?”
It stunned me for a second, like the arc of electricity that shot through my body that time not long after April was born when I touched a still-live wire. Did that just happen? I thought. Am I still alive?
No one had ever said that before—I had never said that before. My mother was not perfect, but she was not terrible. Besides, what did Caitlin know about taking care of anyone but herself? She had never been a mother. She had never been alone with two girls who seemed to always need something from her that she never had to give. She only knew what her therapist told her a mother should be: selfless, free of judgment, a port in the storm. But Caitlin didn’t know about trying to be those things when it felt like the entire world was the storm. If she had asked me, I would have told her: all you can do when times get terrible is batten down the hatches and save whatever is closest to you.
“Your grandmother did the best she could,” I said, my voice shaking, and then Caitlin was the old Caitlin, the soft Caitlin, and she was trying to take it back.
“I’m sorry,” she said. She stood up and came over to my side of the table. “Of course she did.” She squeezed in next to me on my chair and rested her head on my shoulder. She knew exactly what I needed. She always did. She was so sensitive like that. So sweet and selfless and good. I could feel her entire torso against mine then, and I thought, Please. I thought it, but I didn’t say it: Please don’t leave. Please stay here forever.
Later that night, after the girls thought I had gone to sleep, I heard them in the kitchen. April was washing the dishes while Caitlin dried, but it was Caitlin who was talking. She was telling April all about something called a monotype, how you cover a glass plate with paint and press it onto paper, and even though most printmakers use the first print because it’s the most vivid, she found it to be too illustrative. I listened to her put the emphasis on the second syllable, not the third, and it took me a second to realize what she was saying.
“Honestly,” she said, “I prefer the second print or third. Plenty of artists consider them to be inferior, but I like them more. The edges are softer. The colors are more muted.”
April didn’t say anything. It was quiet for a minute except for the sound of the water moving across the back of the bowl April was washing.
“Mom is nuts, isn’t she?” Caitlin said then, and I drew in my breath and tried not to move.
April didn’t say anything for a while, and I watched Caitlin watching her sister. She always did that, even when she was young. See me, her eyes always seemed to say when she looked at April. Love me. Never leave me.
“She’s not nuts,” April said then, shutting off the water. “She’s just Mom.”
I stood there for a second and tried to remember how long it had been since we had all lived under the same roof. Ten years? Fifteen? I was losing track. Even in this moment, I didn’t know who was who and which decade I was in and where everyone was. Was this my house or my mother’s? Was that April and Caitlin washing the dishes or Kelly and me? Those were my children, weren’t they, moving on without me? Or, if they weren’t, then it must be me. I was the child, wasn’t I, still trying my best to move on.