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Even at nearly seven in the morning this time of year the sun is yet to rise; in fact, the blue tint to the dome of the sky can only be imagined. I try to imagine it as I let the blinds back down and dress in the darkness, the desk lamp having blown and the overhead light being too brutal for me at this unaccustomed time of day.
When my phone rings, I walk down the stairs and into the narrow street. Aaron tries to smile visibly from within the half-lit front seat of his car, nodding his head at me in a gesture of acquiescence more than one of greeting. But the moment I get in, it is already clear that his mood is going to remain steely. He anticipates the embarrassment, actually the shame that he will feel when I am in his childhood home, near his family. He is deeply embarrassed and wishes to hide from such a moment, a kind of reckoning for him, I am sure. But he has no choice: his brother is out of town, his cousins are working today; I am the only adult male he can find whom he is willing to ask such a favor. He has told me, in unguarded moments, small details taken from this life, from this segment of his life; but to bring me face to face with it, I imagine he never anticipated or intended such a moment.
Still, there is no help for it now: his mother has to get to the doctor today, and there is no one else to help him carry her down the stairs; to pick her up in her wheelchair and take her carefully down the winding, treacherous, decaying staircase of her apartment building. It is a two-man job, however helpless that makes Aaron today.
Leaving the city on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I begin to feel nauseous. It is terrible to be so close to someone, on an errand like this, yoked together, it seems, as the car hugs the endless curves and hills above the Schuylkill River. The colorful row houses seem to rise out of the shadows as we pass Manayunk and Roxborough, leaving the city. They too hug the rounded terrain, extending in lines across the terraced hillsides, the grey stone that distinguishes these homes from other parts of the city reminding me of the house I left in Chicago. I feel that in the pit of my stomach, an aching for home, even if it is a home I voluntarily surrendered.
Aaron looks at me as if he senses the import of my thoughts. There is nothing secret on days like these. This terrible proximity is a kind of revenge on us for our unending helplessness. And instantly the presence of another becomes unendurable.
Finally the sun rises on a cloudless early winter day, angling down and through the windshield, refusing to leave in obscurity the many painful imperfections and inadequacies of the landscape, debris on the highway, the dust that rises in the car, creases and dry patches of our skin.
At least the small talk of the first few minutes is over. He pretends to focus on driving; I happily let him and look out on the familiar terrain, feeling this actual homecoming to be somehow less real than the memory of the place I have left behind. In fact, the edges of the city do feel dreamlike as the morning sun blurs and obscures them. Against this surfeit of feeling, I sip my coffee and try to prepare myself for the blankness I know I am going to need when we arrive.
Rural Pennsylvania on this surprisingly mild winter day feels like Spring at home: the earth is dark and wet and the smell of rich soil pours in through my cracked window. The whole atmosphere suggests a softening, an unbinding, as when the ice finally cracks and the crusts of snow suddenly crystallize and then disappear, the unfrozen earth finally taking the water into itself, the soil softening as it blackens and turns the grass a deep dark green. Except that at home, this is almost always done under a still-frozen white sky, the blades of grass waving violently in the hard rushes of wind.
Maybe the strange disappointment I feel at this mildness is enough to take all emotion out of me, at least as far as others’ perception will be concerned. There is something matter-of-fact in this lack of winter: as if I am being driven on and pushed in front of some unrelenting impersonal impulse. No rest, it wants to say, but it leaves me to draw the conclusions, showing rather than telling. No rest because, look, nature is not resting – here, the birds are still singing, which means they are still here, weeks after they should have flown south. Look there, the sun is so bright it makes you nauseous; you cannot so much as glance in that direction without becoming sick. Even nature is not resting. It is fine to think of hibernation when the earth around you is resting, but this is not really winter, so for now you must continue on your narrow and empty path, devoid of any pause, however sincerely hoped for and maybe even earned.
We pull up to the building. The apartment complex is at the back of the town and looks built as an afterthought – cheap, splintered brick exterior with strangely small windows in plastic frames; the bushes are rigidly symmetrical, and the grass looks ripped rather than cut. Aaron shrugs and prepares himself as I suppress any and every emotion, thinking repeatedly that I must not shame anyone, that they must be acknowledged but not examined.
We walk up the narrow carpeted staircase as he tells me his plan.
“We’ll each have to take a side – there’s no other way to do it, even though the stairs are really too narrow.”
“However you want to do it, just direct me.”
“Be careful,” he says, deliberately, “because the carpet bunches up and you can trip.”
I realize that he is doing this now in order to avoid discussing it in front of his mother. It is a small kindness and one that could easily be overlooked, but he does not want her to hear herself discussed as either a problem or, still less, an object to be dealt with.
“We’re going to have to tilt her so that she’s leaning backward down the stairs, so that we can balance her legs in front of her and center the weight of the chair.”
The only response I think reasonable is a muted okay.
He puts his hand on the doorknob. “Here we go,” he says as he raises his eyebrows and sighs, trying to seem casual about the thing, as if it were just some odd chore that could not be avoided. Here we are, let’s get it done, his expression seems to say, running completely counter to the moment we are actually in and the pain that must be overwhelming him.
But once inside he seems to calm down a bit, even smiling and laughing a few times as he talks with his mother. I do my best to trust things to take care of themselves, yet I cannot help but remain anxious in my repose; never quite letting the muscles in my back and shoulders slacken, I hold my coffee rigidly in front of me and make as little noise as possible, except in those rare instances when she looks directly at me or asks me a question.
It is not merely the fact that he sees her so infrequently or the fact that she has to spend so much time alone here, with only her part-time nurse for company; nor is it simply her poverty or even both of these things together; instead, what pervades the room when I look for something to define it is his inability to do anything to alter the situation.
But what help can he give? Divorced, half-employed, miserable himself – he can’t afford a decent facility for her nor can he take her into his home, now that he is back in a small one-bedroom apartment, his ex-wife alone in their house while it sits on the market. He cannot afford anything more than the four hours a day for the home healthcare worker and the occasional visit which he ties into a doctor’s appointment, in order to avoid driving the hour and a half out here more than a few times a month.
The smell of urine is here, faint but definite. It mingles with the stale odor of cigarette smoke and disinfectant. Today the healthcare worker has already left, and the three of us have an hour to “visit” before we have to leave for the doctor’s appointment. Happily, it is dark inside the living room, the curtains blocking that intense slanting sunshine from getting in.
I do my best not to look at him, especially his face, but he manages to catch my eye anyway, with a look like a wounded dog.
“We’re probably going to stop on the way back and get lunch, so we can get back on the road before rush hour,” he tells his mother, and she responds with a nod of understanding, confirmation that it must be so.
Managing the conversation with his mother, he curates it for the situation, conscious more of being overheard than of what either of them are saying. He deflects. With words, he calls attention away from the living room, from the smell, from his mother. He focuses on inanities, the very thing the mother would normally be dealing with in the presence of a grown son and his friend. But here, it is as if he must help her into them, ease the small talk into being, as if she has forgotten how and he senses how important it is that she is permitted that safety. Rather than evade the little points of conversation as most grown sons, he lovingly delivers them to her, as if he were wrapping a blanket around her pitched shoulders.
Her speech is hard to comprehend. She has had two strokes, and the left side of her face is nearly paralyzed. She draws out odd syllables, emphasizing sounds almost at random and rarely the expected syllables. This makes it very difficult to follow what she is saying, and I find myself indulging in a kind of free-form daydream, each tangent beginning from some phrase or some piece of a thought that she manages to force out; but my own associations fill in the gaps so that after a few minutes I find myself in a kind of reverie both melancholy and soothing. After all, my participation, other than a few words of assent here and there, is not expected, it being impossible rather than unwelcome.
Her soft voice seems to fade in and out, though it is my attention that is parsing the moments. She is proud of her son; no words would be necessary to draw that conclusion. Just the way she looks at him makes it clear. But she doesn’t seem able to settle upon words that would draw out either her pride or her questions. Her pride is instinctual, not even half-comprehended, as his shame and, in this instant, his hesitance to indulge her pride, especially in my presence. They speak to each other, but their meaning cannot help but aim wide; it misses them almost entirely.
When the softly tortuous hour is over, we arrange things as we discussed in the hall, him rolling her onto the landing as I close the door behind us and crouch down by the large back wheels of her chair. We try to hoist her without shaking her, to keep everything steady, but it is impossible, and she is pitched about, though not violently. To my amazement, she betrays absolutely no fear through any of it, but instead looks straight ahead calmly and quietly, merely waiting to be placed down again at the bottom and thinking nothing more of the time in between. I imagine, or rather cannot help but imagine, and so compare, my own mother’s probable reaction if she were to be lifted up in a wheelchair, knowing that every moment would be subject to scrutiny, calculations of probable outcome, possible danger, and all manner of things particular and uncontrollable, and so terrifying to her. But Aaron’s mother is perfectly still, unperturbed, and I realize that it is for no other reason than that she trusts her son completely, as a young woman might trust her husband. Many would never get used to this procedure, and each iteration would remain terrifying, trying, and a new source of shame and embarrassment. It is her trust, an almost religious trust in her son, who all the while is counting himself a failure in her eyes; but that boundless confidence comes from him, returns to him, and could not possibly outlast him.
And so in pure repose we carry her down the stairs.
We drive her to the doctor’s office then sit and read in the waiting room, talking only infrequently to one another. When they bring her back out, she seems tired and in need of rest. Therefore, in the car we talk even less, and I spend the time looking out of the window once more, as I did on the ride out here, at a landscape I know I will never see again, one that, in memory, will always hold this connotation for me – Aaron’s sick mother, exhausted in the front seat, Aaron brooding beside her.
Some clouds have emerged now, and the light is no longer hostile and ungracious. The temperature seems about to drop. I am always grateful for soft light, it seems merciful to me, not only because it obscures and renders more gently the world around me, but also because of the contradiction that objects and tones emerge more clearly against it, no longer washed out by the unmatted distinctness of a bright sun. The towns seems more livable in this light, and as we drive through these old main streets, there is a kind of sudden longing for generosity inside of me, an unaccountable and possibly unwise impulse to believe the silences endurable, whatever my rational mind might suggest later, alone in the dark in my dingy room, the noises of the city distended through the window, sagging and weighing on my conscience, an impossible homesickness choking my heart.
Andrew Jankowski writes fiction, poetry and essays, some of which have appeared in the New English Review and Law and Liberty Magazine. He lives in the Northern Midwest.