The preceding is an excerpt from Available As Is: A Midlife Widow’s Search for Love published by She Writes Press. Copyright 2022. Used with permission.
In the summer of 1973, I was nine. My world was suffused with color, the sunlight intensely yellow, the sky immeasurably blue, the pool turquoise, and the lawn a deep green. But my mom, Thalia, statuesque and curvy with auburn hair and green eyes, started spending all her time closed up in the bedroom, abandoning her bridge games and gardening projects. My dad, Mort, tall, freckled, and scholarly, told me her back hurt.
There was no one to bring me Pepperidge Farm Goldfish while I read, or to teach me the crawl in the swimming pool, or to make a new recipe from Sunset for dinner, explaining each of the steps while I stared off into space, daydreaming I was friends with the girls in my Betsy-Tacy books.
Dad started coming home early from work every day, like he was afraid to leave Mom alone for too long. He told me not to bother her while he was gone. I wondered what was going on behind that closed bedroom door, and I stood in front of it for hours, as if being closer could help me to see inside. But I was afraid to go in, worried I’d wake her and make everything even worse.
A few weeks in, my Dad said calmly, “Deborah, we are going to the hospital.”
He drove my mother and me to Kaiser Hospital in Walnut Creek in his big, blue Plymouth Fury. Mom was still wearing her pink and green I. Magnin hostess outfit, a checkered blouse that tied at the neck and a quilted, flowered maxi-skirt. She’d gotten out of bed to make dinner that night, hunched over the countertop as she grasped it with one hand while I scampered around trying to help. I didn’t understand how sick she was, only that she seemed so tired, her eyes ringed with dark circles so big they stained her cheekbones.
Dad and I waited in the hospital emergency room for hours before she finally emerged lying down on a gurney, smiling and waving cheerfully as she was wheeled back into the dark bowels of the hospital. He took me home, but he went to the hospital the next day and every day afterward, arranging for the neighbor’s teenage daughter to babysit me. He never took me to the hospital again.
“When’s Mom coming home?” I’d ask every day when he got back from seeing her.
“We don’t know yet. We’ll see.”
“When will we know?”
“We don’t know that, either.”
“What’s wrong with her? Is her back that bad?”
“We’re not sure yet.”
“When will we know what’s wrong with her?”
My dad looked exhausted. If Mom were getting better, he wouldn’t have looked like that, and he would have been able to answer my questions. I pictured my mother sitting alone in her hospital bed wearing the cream-colored bed jacket with little blue flowers my dad had brought her from home as the doctors shuffled in and out of her room. She seemed to have moved into the hospital. I started letting the cat sleep in my bed even though I wasn’t supposed to.
After she’d been in the hospital for about two weeks, Dad came home and said, “She’s getting worse.”
How much worse? I thought, but was too terrified to ask.
Home had become so quiet—no more Wagner blaring from the stereo because my parents were going to see Das Rheingold in the City on Saturday night, no Mom chopping tarragon in the kitchen, no Dad talking to her about some work problem I didn’t understand, no Dad letting me make his nightly gin and tonic and laughing when I accidentally poured too much gin.
“She’s caught pneumonia,” he said three weeks after she was hospitalized.
When is she going to get better? I longed to ask, but I didn’t want to make him mad. He was always on the edge of yelling, his patience stretched wafer thin as he shuttled to and from the hospital. I was afraid to ask him to take me with him in case it made him even madder. I spent that summer alone, reading or watching cartoons, the cat sitting on my lap, looking at me with pale blue eyes.
Two days later, Dad came home from the hospital and said, “She’s in a coma.”
On TV shows, people got better after being sick, but they rarely woke up from comas. Dad couldn’t shield me anymore—my mother was going to die. I pictured her lying in bed in her hospital gown, looking like she was asleep, but really, she was already gone. Had she forgotten about us when she fell into the coma? Had any part of her fought to stay alive, to remind her how much she loved us, even as she drifted away?
Not quite four weeks after she’d been admitted, my dad took me for a drive around town in the Fury. My home town of Danville, California was pretty empty back then—a few stores, not much landscaping. He pulled over into an empty parking lot, the wide expanse of dusty blue seat between us, and said, his voice breaking, “Your mommy’s probably going to die.”
I’d never heard his voice shake before. And he’d always referred to her as “your mother” or by her first name “Thalia,” not “Mommy.” He usually talked to me like I was a small grown-up. Trying to talk to me the way he thought people talked to children was the tip-off. He felt sorry for me.
“She’s already dead,” I said.
He flinched, his face suddenly crumbling before he put it back into place. “You’re right. She died three days ago.”
She’d died on August 9, four days before my tenth birthday. I remembered her waving goodbye to me from her gurney as they’d wheeled her away, still looking perfectly fine. The hospital had eaten my mother. My dad and I drove home in silence, not knowing what to say to each other.
When he brought her stuff home from the hospital, I started wearing her bed jacket to sleep, trying to find some shard of the warmth I used to snuggle with. I ate the black licorice she loved even though it tasted like fennel, a vegetable I truly detested. I still saw her in my bathroom mirror, trying out different hairstyles before going to a dinner party with my dad. She was nervous about how she looked, which was silly because she was so beautiful no matter what she did with her hair.
I searched through his desk drawers looking for answers and found nothing except a pre-printed form from the Neptune Society, with her name misspelled as “Thallia,” saying my mother’s ashes had been scattered at sea. In Greek mythology, Thalia was the muse of comedy. At ten, I had discovered irony.
Next to the announcement was her gold wedding ring. It had been cut in half.