New Year’s Eve
By Lauren Doyle Owens
My brother calls, says, “Bring a razor the next time you visit mom. She wants her mustache shaved.”
Eighty-seven years old, her teeth stained from tobacco smoke, her fingers bent into impossible shapes from arthritis. She can’t walk, can barely move, and this is what she cares about — a bit of blonde fuzz on the top of her lip, made thicker by years of shaving.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I tell my brother. I’m already pissed at him for reasons spoken and unspoken. Since mom’s been in the nursing home, he’s done nothing but visit her for ten minutes at a time, and every time he goes, he asks for money, as though she has bundles of it.
“Sure, Brian,” I say after a while. “She want her bikini line shaved too?”
“Gross, Ed,” he says. “Just gross.”
“What’s the best way to shave a woman’s face?” I ask my wife after I get off the phone with Brian.
“Don’t?” she asks, looking up from the onions she’s chopping.
“Mom wants her mustache shaved.”
“Oh,” she says, and looks back down at the onions. I’ve heard all she has to say about mom and she knows it.
The next day it’s New Year’s Eve. We’re having a party, my wife’s friends mostly. She wants me to stay home to help her prepare, but I’ve got this appointment to take my mom to see a surgeon about her hip. So I drive out early to St. Marias with a list in my pocket of all the things I’m supposed to pick up while I’m down toward the city — shrimp from Cross Street Market, sandwiches from Trinacria.
In her room, mom is awake but not up. She can’t move to sit up on her own, so she just lies there most days and listens to CNN. She knows all about what’s happening in the world, the CNN version of it anyway, and she usually greets me with some grim statistic. This morning she says, “The oceans rose four inches last year.”
“You should sell your truck.”
“I can’t sell my truck. I need it for work.”
“Shortsighted,” she says.
“So you ready for this?”
“Is that his name?”
“He did my friend Susan’s hip.”
The nurse helps me get her out of bed and bundle her up, wrapping her like a burrito in a fleece blanket and easing her into her wheelchair before covering her with a quilt. Winter came early this year, so we’re relatively used to this routine — the bundling of my mother as though she were fine china. Thinking this, I flash to an image of myself as a younger man, wrapping wedding china in newspaper, one failed marriage behind me and two more ahead.
On the handicap bus, mom says, “I dreamt about your father again last night. He was in a canoe and I was on the shore, calling to him, ‘Jean! Jean!’ But he couldn’t hear me or wouldn’t listen.”
She takes a breath and looks out the window, no doubt looking at the stale Christmas decorations on everyone’s front lawns. We couldn’t bring her to the house for Christmas, not having a handicap bus ourselves, so everyone took turns coming to the nursing home because my sister Louise and I no longer speak, and you know how I feel about Brian.
“So I walked out into the river and tried to reach him, but the moment I got to where he was, he vanished. I was standing in the water by myself, calling his name.”
“Geeze, mom,” I say.
“That’s not the worst part,” she says. “The water starts rising until it’s around my waist and I can’t get back to shore.”
We arrive at the doctor’s office and she can’t tell me any more. The driver comes back and wheels her onto the platform and lowers her onto the parking lot. I climb down out of the bus after her and stand beside her. “Ready?”
“Get me a ski mask for next time we do this,” she says. “It’s too cold.”
But I hope we never have to do this again. I hope the surgeon turns her down.
This is why we’re here: Mom had a fall last month and broke her hip. She’s in terrible pain but no one wants to operate on her because she’s old and they don’t want the liability. So now we’re on our third surgeon, and mom promises this will be the last. After this, she’s giving up and going up to heaven with a broken hip. There’s a country song in there, I’m sure.
The surgeon has calm, tired eyes and a confident handshake. I like him right away, but I’m skeptical when he says, “I think there’s a case for surgery here. But, and this is a big but, you have to realize that this means anesthesia, pain, recovery, therapy, and likely more pain.”
Mom says, “It hurts now.”
“I realize that Mrs…,” he looks at her chart, “Daily, but a hip replacement is a big deal. You have to consider whether you’re up for it.”
“And if I am?” she asks.
“If you’re up for it, I’m up for it. But I want you to meet with the physical therapist first, go over what you will need to fully recover.”
“Mom,” I say on the bus back to St. Marias, “what’s the point of this?”
“What’s the point of what?”
“Replacing your hip?”
“I don’t understand what you mean,” she says.
I don’t want to say it, because most of the things I say end up coming out wrong, and she doesn’t want to hear it anyway, but I continue. “You’re 87 years old. You have arthritis and emphysema. Your bones are brittle. Your body’s weak. Why do you want to put yourself through this?”
She looks up at me with big, blue weepy eyes. “They have dances every Thursday after lunch.”
Now to my knowledge, my mother has never danced a day in her life, not when she was younger and at neither of my weddings. I had a wife who liked to dance all the time. She even danced in the kitchen every night after doing the dishes. She once tried to get my mom to join her for a spin around the linoleum, and mom adamantly refused. Since then, mom has referred to her as the Dancing Queen, and not in a flattering tone.
Back at St. Marias, the man comes around, wheels mom onto the platform, and lowers her to the ground. It’s balls-ass-cold outside and she reminds me about the ski mask.
“Come on, mom,” I say, wheeling her across the parking lot, “forget this. No more doctor appointments. No more trips on the handicap bus. A broken hip’s better than no hip at all.”
“How would you know?” she says.
Back in the room, the nurse wants to help me put her into bed, but I tell her to give me a minute. It’ll be easier to shave her while she’s still sitting up. I wheel her over to face the chair that I intend to sit on, and gather everything I need: a bowl full of warm water and a towel. I sit across from her and unwrap the travel shaving kit I bought at the drugstore earlier that morning. It has a triple blade disposable razor and a one-ounce can of shaving lotion. I figure it’ll last the rest of her life.
I’m ready to start but something’s not right, so I get a pillow from her bed and prop her up. She’s directly across from me and even though she’s old and frail, and her teeth are so badly stained they resemble butterscotch, I can still see some traces of the woman, and even the girl, she used to be. I get the idea that I wish I had known her when she was little. And then I wish I could keep knowing her. That I could keep coming up here and doing these small things for her that no one else wants to do. The feeling comes in a flash and it breaks me. I wish I could cry openly, but I can’t. Not in front of my mother. Not in front of anyone.
“You sure you want me to do this?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says, unblinking.
So I take the cap off the shaving cream and squirt out just enough to lather her lip, which I do with my index finger, gently, as though she were a baby. I start on the side of her lip and work my way toward her nose. I remember that she taught me to shave because my father was gone by then and my brother refused. She lathered up her own face and stood next to me in front of the mirror. “Like this,” she said, as she slowly dragged the razor from her temple to her jaw with the blade cover on.
“Hold still,” I say, and she does, presenting her face to me and closing her eyes.
I uncap the razor and touch it to her lip. My hand is shaking as I draw the razor gently downward.
I rinse the razor in the bowl. Her shaved skin is pink and new.
“Don’t move,” I say again, and pull the blade slowly down her lip. I rinse the razor in the bowl, and repeat the action until I reach the divot under her nose. Then I shave the other side, cleaning her lip in three small, even strokes.
“Hold out your lip like this,” I say, pushing my upper lip out so that the bone beneath it stretches the skin. She follows my lead and I take the razor back up to her face and hold my breath as I slowly move the razor down the center of her lip. I repeat this a few times, making sure I don’t leave any hair.
I clean her lip with the towel. “All set.”
“Can I see?” she asks.
I look around the room for a mirror.
“There’s one in my drawer,” she says. “Top right.”
I dig around in the drawer for a mirror, but I can’t find it. There are pictures of all of us on the dresser, kids and then adults with kids of our own. I catch sight of my daughter when she was little. It’s a wallet-sized photo that’s tucked into the corner of a frame. Elsewhere, I know, is a picture of her own daughter, a child I’ve never met but have seen in pictures.
“I can’t find the mirror, mom.”
“Oh,” she says. She looks around and realizes it’s beside her bed. “There it is,” she says. “The compact.”
I reach for it, open the compact, and hand it to her.
“Huh,” she says.
“I’m old, that’s what.”
“You need a mirror to tell you that?”
“Don’t be so harsh.”
“Sorry,” I say.
“Four wives and you still don’t know how to talk to women.”
“Maybe by the fifth,” I say.
“Huh,” she says, with a chuckle. “You were always the funny one.”
“Funnier than the rest.”
“Not much competition in our family,” I say.
“Are you ready to get back in bed?”
“What time is it?”
“Stay with me til lunch,” she says.
I think of the list in my pocket. Of Julie at home, waiting on the shrimp that will need to be peeled. But I stay with her anyway, and hold her hand until she falls asleep.
Before I go, I clean the bowl and razor and find somewhere to put them. I put the compact in the drawer, if only to stand at the dresser and look at the pictures again. My eyes move over them but I can’t find what I’m looking for, the picture of my daughter and granddaughter on vacation somewhere last year. “Look,” my mother had said when she received it, “Heather and her girl.”
“Where’d you get that?” I’d asked.
“She sent it to me. They were on a beach somewhere. South Carolina, maybe.”
“Huh,” I’d said, staring at the photo, looking at Heather’s face and then her daughter’s.
When I don’t see the photo, I search for it, picking up the framed pictures and looking under and behind them. I look on the floor beside the dresser and then behind it, to see if it fell. I open the drawers and search them, but it’s not there. It’s as though the photo never existed. I’m about to give up when I find it, tucked inside a book in my mother’s underwear drawer. In it, Heather and her daughter stand in front of the ocean. In front of them, the sun must be setting, because their hair glows with it. They glow. And I’m reminded of a beach vacation thirty years in the past, when Heather was a kid and I was the man taking the photo. I’m tempted to pocket it, to keep the picture for myself, but I place it back in the book, the book back in the drawer.
My mom shifts in her chair. I think that she shouldn’t be sleeping there, that she’ll get a crick in her neck, or worse. But I don’t wake her, or attempt to move her into the bed. Instead, I put on my coat and leave.
In the parking lot, I climb up into my truck and turn the ignition. But I don’t move. I just sit there, staring out into the grey day, at the maple that’s almost bare, a few strands of tinsel stuck to one of the branches, wondering how I got here. We’d lived only a few miles from here. It seems like only a second ago, but of course it wasn’t. My dad has been dead almost fifty years. My mom is dying. I have children I haven’t spoken to for years, and a wife whose text messages have been buzzing inside my pocket for nearly an hour.
I shift the truck into reverse, and pull out of the spot.
There’s somewhere I’ve got to be.
Lauren Doyle Owens is a Florida-based fiction writer and hobbyist photographer. Her work has appeared in numerous magazines, and most recently in Concho River Review. To chat with Lauren or see random pictures of her cat, reach out on Twitter, @ldoyleowens.