"Would you like some popcorn?" she asks, holding out the wooden bowl of slightly blackened popcorn.
"No thank you," I respond. "I'll just have tea." I put the kettle on and check out her candy container while the water boils. All that's there is the leftover candy from the Christmas parade—the utter rejects of the rejects. Broken peppermints and bubble gum. "You need new candy," I say. She laughs.
The water boils and I make a pot of tea. Constant Comment. It's what we've been drinking for decades. The pot I bought for my mother the year we lived in Germany. I put three tea cups and the pot on the dining room table. My father gets out the cribbage board and deals the cards. He pulls his red ball cap a little lower down to keep out the dim light overhead. He can't tolerate light glare of any kind.
"I only have 5 cards!" my mother says.
"That's all you're supposed to have," says my father.
My mother eats her burnt popcorn. "Would you like some popcorn?" she asks again.
"No, thank you," I reply again. "I'm just going to have tea." I resist mentioning that the popcorn holds a bitter taste of burn. I've said it on a hundred other nights, but lately I've stopped.
We play a hand, count our cards. My father has a bandage on his upper lip where he'd had a skin cancer removed. He looks dapper somehow, like a colonel. Sophisticated. I wonder why my father has never grown a mustache. He drinks his hot tea with a straw so that the bandage doesn't get wet.
It's my mother's turn to deal. "Do I deal six cards?" she asks.
"No, just five," my father says.
Are you sure?" my mother asks. "I had six cards last time!"
"Five cards, Mom."
She deals, then asks whose turn it is. "I talked to Barbara today. She sent me a stack of pictures," my mother says. I struggle to come up with "Barbara." My cousin's wife? "They were pictures of Shirley's." I understand now. Shirley was my mother's best friend from childhood. They've known one another for over 75 years. Shirley has been in a nursing home for years, battling Parkinson's.
"Barbara says Shirley sleeps all the time," my mother says. She shakes her head.
"She's probably on a lot of medications for the Parkinson's that makes her sleep," I tell my mom. She looks relieved. Sleep brought on by medicine is better than just being so old that you sleep all the time.
"Barbara adopted a girl, you know," my mother tells me. I don't think I've ever met Barbara, but I have known nearly all my life that Barbara couldn't have children. "She'd be a woman now, of course. Elizabeth."
My father directs us back to the game.
"Wait!" says my mother in alarm. "I only have 5 cards!"
"That's all you need," I reassure her.
"Am I the only one eating popcorn?"
"You are, Mom." I photograph her hand in the popcorn bowl. She laughs.
We play for an hour, and each time my mother asks: "Six cards?" My father and I exchange looks just once. What is there really to say?
*Every few months my father will ask me: "Do you think your mom has Alzheimer's?"
"No, Dad," I tell him because not only has she been tested and cleared, but I intuitively know she doesn't. I used to tell him that we women are just like that. Sometimes we can't find the words for simple objects because our minds are so full of our children and cooking supper and a million other things. Every single day my kids find a word for me. "Teapot, Mom. Dog toy. Piano bench." Who can concentrate on something so simple when you have a list of 20 running conversations in your head?
But there is more now to my mother's grasping for words, to her repetition. My mother is growing old. Her friends are dying, have been for 20 years. A year ago she lost her last brother, and her lifelong best friend sleeps in a nursing home all day long. She aches, each and every day. She rubs her legs, flinches with pain as she gets up from the couch.
Still, she gets up every single day. She cooks a big lunch for my father every single day. First sign of a sunny day, she hangs her laundry on the clothesline and picks up sticks in the yard, leaving piles for my father to cart down to the curb. She reads voraciously and even plays solitaire on the computer. Most day she shakes it off terribly well, this business of growing old. But in the evenings, she is weighed down by it, by the fullness of her life and by the sheer loss of what-once-was. I love her.
My mother wins the game. She is ecstatic —we never beat my father. She may not remember how many cards to deal from hand to hand, but she counts off her points like a math whiz.
I will gladly take the questions asked again and again, the burned popcorn, and the thrice-told tales, and I will treasure up these moments, these days, for as long as they will last.
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