“I think you should come home.”
My brother’s voice is low and scratchy through the phone. I assume he must’ve just woke up; I sink further into the covers of my bed. Two months ago, I told Jack to call me if they needed anything; I hadn’t anticipated that they would need help so soon. It’s what you say, right? Call if you need anything, but you don’t really assume that they’ll actually call and actually need something specific. You hope it’ll be as easy as, “Keep us in your thoughts.” which, for you, means that they’ll constantly be on your mind, and not in a way that’s romantic or sentimental; no, not that at all. They’ll weigh in your chest, in that place right next to your heart. It’s not an ailment, just a reminder.
I’m always thinking about them: when I’m making breakfast in silence in the morning, and I spill milk on the floor; when I’m driving to work every morning, and the same silver Buick cuts me off; especially when my co-worker Ron shows me pictures of his latest ski trip with his two blonde haired, blue eyed grandsons. His wife died last Christmas.
“They’re just the best,” he says to me, tucking the pictures back into his drawer behind the cubicle wall we share. Ron’s a good guy.
Sometimes I forget about them, and I’m laughing at a comedian on the radio, or I find myself smiling at my neighbor’s dog, and then I remember.
“I think you should come home,” Jack repeats. In his voice, I can hear that he’s desperate for my help or angry that I’m not there; I can never really tell.
No, I think, I don’t want to.
“Yeah,” I say. “I’ll be there in the morning.”
When I arrive the next morning there is a thick sheet of snow on the ground. I live about three hours away, but the weather outside my house is often starkly different than the weather here. For the last fifteen years, I’ve worked at a computer software company, selling software and helping develop new computer programs. They know me well, and they like the work I do. Asking for time off so last minute wasn’t an issue.
The red plastic flag on the mailbox is down, but when I pull open the small door, there is a bundle of mail towards the back. I sift through it as I make my way up the snowy driveway: a golf magazine, a bill, a letter from the Red Cross, another bill.
Before I can knock on the door, it opens, and Jack stands in the doorway.
“Hey, little sis,” he says, wrapping me in a hug. He insists on taking my one bag into the house. I tell him I got it. He insists again. I let him.
Jack is only a year and a half older than me, but he’s always acted, and we’ve always treated him, like he’s the eldest by a long shot. I guess he had his life together long before I did.
The house is quiet except for a loud radio playing upstairs. Pictures of Jack and me line the corridor that leads to the kitchen and family room. I make a joke about Jack’s senior pictures, and he responds with a jab at my hair-cut-gone-wrong in the 8th grade. We do this every time I come home: break the ice before it ices over when I leave again. Things are better between us when I’m here.
Jack makes me a cup of coffee; I drink it even though I didn’t ask for one. The house looks less messy than it did when I was here a few months ago. Two dirty dishes sit near the sink; one has the remnants of blueberry pie.
“That’s all he eats,” Jack says, following my eyes to the plate. “That and vanilla milkshakes.”
I give a small smile. “How does his doctor feel about that?”
Jack shrugs. “I put PediaSure in them for protein, but the doctor told me to give him what he wants.”
My eyes fall from the plate.
We both hear the sound of a door opening and then closing. Her footsteps are nearly silent until she reaches the hardwood of the kitchen.
“Mom, I told you to call me,” Jack says, starting towards her. She pretends that she didn’t hear him, but it’s quite possible that she really didn’t. Her unsteadiness began last time I was here, followed by a few incidents of incontinence. I fight the urge to cry every time I see her. Her eyes light up, and she takes my face in her wrinkly hands, pressing a kiss to both of my cheeks.
“Oh, am I happy to see you.” Her embrace is almost suffocating. She still smells faintly of lilac, but I’m not sure if she’s really wearing it or I’m just grasping.
Her short grey hair is disheveled and sticking up in the back; I smooth it down as our hug lingers. When we pull away, she gives Jack a hug, too, as if it’s the first she’s seen of him in a long time.
“You two,” she says, wagging a finger at us. “I’m so glad you’re both here.”
She takes my hand, her lips twitching like they do when she’s thinking. “Where’s Michael? I’m going to make his favorite casserole tonight.”
I can feel Jack’s eyes lower to the floor. She’s gotten worse. Her small brown eyes search my face; I decide to exist in the world she’s living in. “He couldn’t make it,” I say.
Her pink lips pucker. “Oh, that’s too bad. I hope he can make it down soon.”
She was a school teacher. She was the kind of teacher whose students came back to visit long after they had moved on from grade school. Jack and I were her children, but her students were a close second.
“Some days, she’s stuck in the past; others, she’s somewhere else,” Jack says to me as we watch her from the kitchen. She’s sitting at the dining room table, her chin propped up by her small fist. She’s eyeing a puzzle, pursing her lips as she moves the pieces around, but she doesn’t attempt to fit them into the puzzle. “The doctor said puzzles will help keep her brain stimulated.”
I can still hear the radio from upstairs. An old news program from the 50s is playing. “Is that the same doctor that told you to keep feeding Dad pie and milkshakes?”
“I’m doing the best I can, Claire. I don’t have a lot of support.”
I lean against the kitchen counter. “What about Macy?”
Jack is quiet. I shift awkwardly in my place, tilting my head to meet his eyes. I saw Macy briefly when I was here last time. She had offered me a hug when she arrived at the house; she kept her purse close to her side as if she wanted to be prepared to leave at any moment. I remember thinking she looked tired. During our phone calls, I asked Jack about her. He barely mentioned her, but we don’t talk a lot about those kinds of things anyway. I had a handful of boyfriends in high school and college. Jack wasn’t overly protective of me in those days, but I knew he had his eye on me, and he always knew when I was going through a breakup. “You’re better off without him,” he would say to me over breakfast or in the car on the way to school. When I met Michael, I knew that he had been right; I’d been better off without those guys.
Macy seemed to make Jack content. They were happiest in high school, when life was simple, and the world seemed small. They hit a rough patch five years into their marriage. Jack never told me, but I knew something was off when she didn’t come to Thanksgiving one year. “She misses her family a lot,” he had said. We nodded like Macy fleeing to her parents’ instead of joining us wasn’t strange. A few months later they announced that Macy was pregnant. I think Macy thought it would fix everything; she lost the baby about a month later. I thought maybe they lost another a year later, early on in the pregnancy. Macy had stayed home from our Christmas dinner at Mom and Dad’s. “She isn’t feeling up to it,” Jack had said. They lost another one, just three years ago.
Jack lets out a sigh and messes with a loose cabinet handle. “We just separated about a week ago.”
“Jack, I’m sorry.” I bite down on the inside of my lip. “Sorry, I didn’t know.”
“Yeah. I probably should’ve mentioned it. I’ve been having a hard time dealing with it. I just started moving my stuff over here. I’m living in the guest room upstairs,” he says with a hint of embarrassment in his voice. “Things between us have been rough for awhile now. It was easier for me when she was around. I mean, things weren’t perfect, but, you know.” His voice trails off, and he softly shakes his head. “That’s why I called you,” he says.
“I can’t do this on my own, Claire. I mean, I live here, and I basically work from home now. You know I don’t normally do this.”
I chuckle. “Ask for help? Yeah, I know.” I pause for a moment, then nod. “You know, you’re better off without her.” It doesn’t sound right, not like it did when he said it to me in high school. I wish I could take it back.
Jack forces a small smile. “Thanks.”
His eyes are resting on Mom in the other room, but he speaks without an edge of distraction to his voice. “Macy said we both changed. She said that she felt like there was no way to recover who we used to be. But I knew what it was.”
I frown. “What do you mean?”
He looks back at me; his eyes look heavy. “This,” he says, gesturing around us. “This became my life. There wasn’t room for her anymore.”
Jack and I always had big plans for our lives. He worked hard in high school and college, earned the grades, met Macy. He had it all figured out, and I always knew that Jack would leave town and make something of himself. But he didn’t. He stayed here, married Macy, got a good job in insurance. But Jack was always genuinely happy for me, even though I chose the path we always thought he would take. I admired him for that. After Michael and I got married it finally seemed like Jack and I were on the same page in our lives. Michael and I visited a lot and spent time with Jack and Macy. But five years ago, Michael was killed in a bike accident, here, in town. We were visiting for the weekend. I teased him about his new love for biking. “Have fun with your new toy,” I had said to him before he left the house that morning.
And then about two years ago, Dad had his first stroke putting his golf clubs into the car. He had another one the following year. A year ago, Mom started to forget dates and birthdays. When she entered her sixties, and silver hairs began sprouting more prominently at her roots, we teased her about her memory. First they were just small things. She kept asking us the same questions. She would forget to turn off lights (one of her pet peeves about us when we were growing up). Those were the first warning signs, but we made them seem normal; a joke; a way to get the whole room, including Mom, laughing. You couldn’t have known at the time, her doctor had said. I know, I had thought, But I should’ve known.
It was a few days after her sixty-sixth birthday when I brought her a picture I had found of our family vacation from when I was sixteen.
“When was this?” she had asked, smiling down at the picture. “Last year?”
I paused, waiting for her to laugh like she did when she told the punchline to a joke, but she remained staring down at the image of us dancing on the beach. “Mom, this was over twenty years ago. Look how young everyone looks.”
Her lips twitched, her cheeks flushed pink. “Of course, of course.”
She was never the same after that. None of it made sense to us; how could our mother lose herself like this? “She’s not even… you know, that old,” Jack had said. The doctors said that sometimes early onset dementia happens at her age. But as I look at her now, she does look old, and I wish I could hold that young, beloved schoolteacher in my arms once again. After Michael died, it was like the thread of our family slowly began to disintegrate; stitch by stitch our lives began to unravel.
At dinner time, I take a tray up to Dad’s room on the second floor. I shake my head as I walk up the narrow flight of stairs. The townhouse had seemed like a good idea when they were still steady on their feet. Now, I cringe thinking about their shaky feet slipping on the carpeted stairs. Jack is calling next week about installing a motorized chair lift, but he’s not sure if insurance will cover it.
The door to Dad’s room is cracked. His radio is still playing. The room is dim; Jack said he prefers it like that. He’s flat on his back in bed. His eyes are closed, but when he hears the door squeak, his eyelids flutter, then open.
“Who’s that?” he asks.
“Hi, Daddy,” I say softly.
His eyes take a moment to adjust to the lighting of the room, but when he opens them and sees me, he gives me a hearty smile. I lean down and give him a hug; I’m afraid even my gentleness might crack his frail body. The room smells of mothballs and stale popcorn. He has a winter glove and heating bag on his right arm. Ever since the stroke, his right side is perpetually cold.
“I brought you a sandwich and some pie.”
He nods his sparse head of hair and lifts up his left hand; a few droopy fingers point in my direction. “I need help,” he says.
I need help, a phrase he knew well coming from me. When I was in elementary school and needed help with my braids in the morning; when I crashed my car at seventeen; when Michael died, and I couldn’t pay rent on our apartment. I need help, I had said to my Dad. I can help, he would respond, I can help with that.
I pause a moment before setting the tray down on his bedside table. He shifts himself in bed, his lips pursed as if he is concentrating hard on a task.
“I can help,” I say.
I lean over as if embracing him. Gentle, I think to myself. With my palms against his small back, I plant my feet on the ground and lift. He leans his forehead against my collarbone like a newborn baby does with his mother.
He is sitting up now. I adjust a pillow against his back.
“Are you comfortable?”
He nods, picking up the spoon and plunging it into the blueberry pie.
We talk a little bit, mostly about the weather and the store the blueberry pie came from. Between his slurps and the crumbs falling down the stubble on his chin, he says, “Swell place.” That makes me smile. I offer him a napkin, and he takes it from me, setting it on his lap. I ask him how he’s feeling, and I think about what a stupid question that is to ask someone who’s so clearly in a lot of pain. “I’m doing okay,” he says. “Just never thought this would be me.”
He eats half of the sandwich, devours the pie.
“Do you want to come down and sit with us for a little bit?”
“Not tonight,” he says.
I look around his small, neat bedroom with the radio playing softly in the background and the plaid curtains shielding his eyes from the bright rays outside. I want nothing more than to cry, but I won’t, not in front of him.
As I gather up his dirty dishes and set them on the tray, he clears his throat and holds up his left hand again.
“I’m worried about your mother,” he says.
“Something’s not right,” he says.
I press a kiss against his forehead.
After dinner, Jack asks me to go to the store while he cleans up. He hands me a grocery list on a sticky note with a few scribbled items to buy: PediaSure (for Dad’s milkshakes), a bag of carrots, adult diapers (for Mom), and trash bags. As I drive through town, everything feels nostalgic. No matter how much time has passed, it all sends a chill down my back, a reminder that all of this seems far away at home, but so familiar when I’m back.
I pick up the trash bags, first, and then the Gatorade. I have to ask an employee where the PediaSure is. She’s in her late twenties, bright smile. She brings me to the aisle that has PediaSure along with baby-food and applesauce.
“My son loves this stuff,” she says and points to where the PediaSure is on the shelf. “It’s good for the bones.”
“Let me know if you need anything else,” she calls as she makes her way around the corner. I set two cases in my basket and make my way a few aisles down to where the adult diapers are. As I make my way around the corner I collide with another customer.
“I’m sorry,” we say at the same time. When I look up, I see that it’s Macy.
“Claire, hi. What a coincidence,” she says with a nervous laugh.
We both begin talking at the same time. She gestures for me to go. I tell her to go ahead. She insists that I go.
“You’re back,” she finally says.
I nod, shifting the weight of my basket in my hands. “Yeah. Work has been kind of light, so I thought I’d come down for a few days.”
I don’t mention that Jack called me. I feel an odd sense of sibling loyalty kick in like it would be a betrayal if I told her Jack asked me to come.
“Well, that’s great. That’s really great,” Macy says.
I shift the basket again. Her eyes dart down to the PediaSure, then to the packages of adult diapers on the shelf next to us. “How are they doing?”
“They’re doing okay,” I say, unconvinced.
“Good. And how are you?” she asks.
“I’m good. And you?”
She shrugs and offers me a small smile. “Good. Busy.”
A few moments of silence lapse between us. Macy begins taking a step back like you do when you want a conversation to be finished.
“Jack told me about the separation. I’m really sorry about that,” I say.
Macy tenses up, and her mouth forms a straight line. “Yeah, me too,” she says. “Life never ends up being like what we think it will be.” She pauses for a moment and tucks a lock of hair behind her ear. The whites of her eyes are slightly red. She lets out a small laugh as if she just told a joke that no one laughed at. “God, look at me getting emotional at the grocery. I’m getting old.”
Michael and I never had the chance to have kids, but it was something we both wanted. I’ve dated a few people in the last two years since Michael’s death, but nothing’s ever lasted. I don’t feel as though my love life is hopeless. I know I’ll probably meet someone and make the life I didn’t get to finish with Michael. I feel the same way about Jack, and maybe even Macy. We’ll all end up okay- just slightly bruised and scratched from pasts that had their way with us. It’s just the getting there that, at times, seems distant and foggy.
Macy and I exchange awkward pleasantries as we both turn to leave. She reaches out for a hug. I give in. I think Jack would’ve wanted me to hug her, to make the situation as light as possible. Macy tells me to keep in touch, but I doubt we will.
When I return, Jack is sitting at the kitchen table, flipping through a stack of bills. I set the bag of groceries on the counter and start putting a few things away. Jack scratches at the back of his neck and lets out a sigh as he compares two pieces of paper.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
He looks up; his glasses have slid down on his nose. “Just money stuff.”
I lean over where he’s sitting and look over a piece of paper. “What is this for?” I hold up the paper for Jack to see.
Jack looks up and readjusts his glasses. “It’s an estimate for a new shower upstairs for Dad. He’s having trouble with the old one.”
I feel my lips twitching just like Mom’s when she’s thinking.
“I thought you were getting the chair lift for the stairs?”
Jack shakes his head. “They’ll get both. Just not at the same time.”
I glance towards the living room and see that Mom’s door is closed. Dad’s radio is still playing loudly upstairs. Jack and I have had barely any time to talk alone today. I didn’t realize how much attention Mom and Dad required throughout the day.
“Jack, they shouldn’t be walking up those stairs every day. One of them is eventually going to fall.”
Without looking up, he replies, “I’m handling it, Claire. Just let me deal with it.”
I fold my arms cross my chest. “You know, I dropped everything because you asked me to come back. I didn’t ask any questions; I didn’t make any excuses. You asked me to come, and I did, so you could at least let me help you make some of these decisions.”
He leans back in his chair and frowns back at me; the crease in his forehead is deep and wrinkled. His mood has been mild since I arrived, but I feel a sharpness in his voice that makes my muscles tighten and my heart rate pick up.
“I don’t need help with it, okay? I’ve been doing it myself for months.”
“What’s your problem? I’m just trying to help you,” I say.
He lets out a haughty laugh. “Are you kidding me? My problem? Maybe it’s that I’m the one who’s dealing with all of this while you live your quiet, little life three hours away.”
Tears sting my eyes, the sensation causing my nose to tingle. “Is that what you think? Do you really think that when I leave here, I go home and forget all of this?”
Jack is quiet for a few moments. He takes off his glasses and massages his eyes before looking back at me. “Fine, every few months, you take a few days off of work to come see them, but the next day- you leave. And you get to return to some kind of normalcy, while I’m stuck here. I mean, it’s not enough that I was taking care of them on my own, but now I’m trying deal with the fact that my wife has completely given up on our marriage.”
I shake my head. “I’m sorry that your marriage fell apart, but that’s not my or mom and dad’s fault.”
He throws his hands up in the air in exasperation. “God, Claire! This isn’t about my marriage! This isn’t about Macy! This isn’t about the shit we’re both carrying around. This is about how I’m taking care of our parents on my own. It’s not a burden…” he trails off. “I don’t want this to be a burden, you know? I always knew I wanted to take care of them when they got older. It’s what you’re supposed to do. They take care of you your whole life, and then you take care of them for what little bit of life they have left… But it wasn’t supposed to happen this soon, and when it did happen, I thought you’d be here to help me.”
I speak softly. “I did too, and I’m sorry about that.” I pause. “It’s just hard for me to come back here.”
Jack glances towards the kitchen window. “I know that.”
I lean against the kitchen counter and let my muscles relax. I look at Jack and imagine that he often sits here alone at night, calculating bills, making decisions, listening to the radio playing upstairs and the silence that eventually follows. It occurs to me that there are probably moments for him when our parents barely resemble who they used to be. I wonder if, in these quiet moments at night, Jack returns to his memories, collecting pieces of the past to store away, before he has to leave them behind in the morning.
“What do you want me to do, Jack? Do you want me to move back here?”
Jack shakes his head. “No. I wouldn’t ask you to do that. But I can’t keep doing this on my own. I’m going to burn out.”
I hear the twirling sound of the washer in the laundry room. A long stretch of silence hangs between us. In the glow of the kitchen light, I see grey hair popping up among his dark locks, and I see lines around his mouth and eyes that I hadn’t noticed before. I run a hand through my hair.
The washer stops.
The sun is beginning its trek behind the snow filled clouds. Jack cleared the bills off of the kitchen table and tucked them away to deal with tomorrow. He’s sitting on the couch in the family room. I slump down next to him. I can still hear the radio from upstairs and the television from Mom’s room. From my pocket, I take out a hair tie and rub its rough surface between my fingers.
“I have to go back tomorrow.”
Jack nods, staring back at the unlit fireplace.
“And I’ll be back next Saturday,” I say.
He looks back at me, and for a moment he’s eighteen and driving me to school as the radio plays softly in the background. And for another moment, as I look back at the dining room table in the next room, I see Mom grading papers and Dad balancing his checkbook. And when I turn forward, Jack and I are older, and Mom and Dad are older than we ever thought possible. I’ll keep coming back. And Jack and I will lose our parents together.
“We should see about getting the chair lift for the stairs,” he says.
I say, “Okay,” and stand up to light the fireplace.