“I’m terrible and need to talk with you.”
It was my mother calling. She has been dispirited the past two months, even saying, “Maybe it’s enough already. I’m so old I can’t even remember how old I am.” I reminded her that she was 104 in June.
“But it’s not what you think. Why I’m terrible.”
I had been thinking that maybe it was because of her infected molar and the difficult decision whether or not to have it surgically removed—not a routine matter for someone her age—or try to manage it less invasively with antibiotics. Or maybe she was again experiencing shortness of breath or was plagued by edema which was the result of intermittent heart failure and in combination with her breathing difficulties was causing her to need to use a wheelchair when she went down to the dining room for breakfast and dinner. Or perhaps she had other ailments and symptoms that were cropping up more and more as time was having its relentless way with her.
“Tell me, mom,” I said as empathetically as I could, “Tell me what’s going on. What’s on your mind?” I knew too that what was on her mind might be the most complicated thing to deal with, to help her with, more difficult than her heart condition and more dangerous to her wellbeing and survivability--her propensity to worry and fret.
As she often says about herself, “My mind is my biggest problem. I make big things out of small things and build up so much anxiety that my heart pounds in my chest and I feel like I’m going to die. And,” she was now inclined to add, “maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Dying. I’ve lived too long and now it’s time for me to go.”
But other things convinced me that, her ultimate fate aside, she was not yet ready to move on. She continues to have her hair done religiously every Thursday, she shows little loss of appetite (quite the contrary—she is the first one at dinner, in spite of needing to negotiate her way there in a wheelchair), and she is again immersed in the on-going U.S. Open tennis tournament. “I want to see Andy Roderick who is retiring after it’s over. He has such a beautiful wife. I think she’s named after the Bronx.”
“Brooklyn,” I corrected her, “Brooklyn Decker.” Then asked, back to the subject at hand, “So, if it’s not your heart or the swelling in your legs or your tooth, what’s making you so upset?”
“You remember the terrible man with all that hair?”
I had no idea who she meant. As anxiety prone as she has become, it is also contributing to some cognitive changes—her memory is less perfect than it’s been and she is more inclined to speak in non-sequiturs.
“You don’t know who I’m talking about? The one who was carrying on with women while his wife was dying of cancer. The one with all that hair.”
I now knew—“You mean John Edwards. Who ran for vice president with John Kerry and then four years ago challenged Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Didn’t he once pay $500 for a haircut?”
“That’s the one. Him.” With her loose tooth it sounded as if she spat the “him,” though she through the years has had no use for him and easily could have in this way intentionally shown contempt for him. She all along thought he was not to be trusted. Even when he was the first choice of many liberals.
“What about him, mom, that’s making you so upset?”
“Nothing anymore. He got his comeuppance.”
“But still you mentioned him.”
“It’s what he said.”
“At his recent trial? As I recall he didn’t testify.”
I could hear her gasping for breath. Her voice getting throatier.
“When was that and what did he say?”
“About the Americans. What he said about them. Us. The Americans.”
“Stop and catch you breath,” I urged, concerned that she was overstressing herself.
“I know you care about me, my darling, but this is important. I need to tell you about it.”
“Whatever you say, mom. But I’m not following what you mean about him and Americans.”
“Americas,” she corrected me. “What he said about Americas. How there are two of us.”
“Of course, I remember that. Two Americas—one America doing well, the rich, and the other the rest of us, struggling, falling further and further behind.” I thought to help her save energy by explicating this distinction.
“That’s what he said. I never liked him. Trusted him. But about this I agreed.”
“But why are you raising this now? After all this time? And why is it making you so upset?”
“Because it’s even worst than what he said.”
“In what way?”
“It’s worse than just about money. Though it’s bad enough that so many are struggling. Doing poorly. Young people, college graduates and others can’t find jobs. Are living with their parents. People are still losing their houses. Are losing respect for themselves. That’s what he meant and it’s still true. But now, it’s worse.”
“Because, did you see the convocation?”
“The what?” I was again confused, but quickly figured out what she meant. “You mean the convention. The Republican convention last week.”
“That one. Did you watch?”
“Not that much. Mainly the last night. When Mitt Romney spoke and Clint Eastwood made a fool of himself by talking to an empty chair.”
“They all made fools of themselves. All the lying. But that empty chair business, which the TV had so much fun with, took our minds off what was really going on. Not just how they didn’t talk about the two Americans. I wouldn’t expect that of them.”
“That’s what got you so upset? The Republicans who aren’t interested in poor people and really not that much in the middle-class?”
“This I know. Remember I go back to when we couldn’t vote, women, and I know the Republicans, what they are, for that long. I remember that Hoover and Dewey and Goldman, a Jew from Arizona, and that terrible Nixon and the Bushes and Reagan too and now this Romney and his partner, Runyan from Wisconsin.”
“Ryan, Paul Ryan.”
“Yes, him. Which one of them cares about average people? I’ll answer my own question—none. None of them. But with Romney they finally have someone from the rich America. Not one who like Roosevelt, who I loved though he wasn’t perfect, was from there too but cared about us. Those without jobs, living in the streets. With no health and no pensions. Begging for work. Selling apples. Lined up for a bowl of soup. He took on the rich people he grew up with and fought for the rest if us.”
“That’s what I understand. But why are you saying Romney’s different than the other Republicans?”
“Because he’s not just about the money. About making billions and wanting to keep all of it. Not to pay taxes. Except maybe give some of it to his church, which of course they don’t want to talk too much about because of the church he belongs to.”
“But if he isn’t all about protecting the wealthy what are you’re saying he represents?”
“He is about a different kind of life. The life he comes from. Was born into. Yes, the life that only rich people can live, but . . .” She begin coughing and I heard her let the phone drop out of her hand and clatter on the coffee table.
“Are you all right mom?” I wished again that I could be there with her; but as she repeatedly reminds me and the rest of her immediate family, we all have to lead our lives.
Using the still echoing receiver as if it were a speakerphone, she finally said, “I have a little cough and needed to get some water.” Her voice was now fully audible as she once again was talking directly into the microphone.
“I was saying he comes from a different kind of life. Not just because he has so many houses and Cadillacs. In America we accept that. We respect and even admire success. It doesn’t always matter how they make their money. We like gangsters like Benny and Clyde or that Tony from TV.”
“But this Romney lives as if he is from another world. Where everyone is white. Everyone has perfect children and grandchildren. Everyone lives behind gates with guards at the entrances to their houses. They seem not to be aware of anyone else. Yes, like in his case, he may meet a few from the other world as he goes about trying to get elected but everything is planned to keep these people away, so he doesn’t have to look at them. At us. And here’s what’s the worst of all.”
“What’s that, mom?” I was trying to slow her down so she wouldn’t overtax herself.
“I know you’re trying to distract me and I love you for that. But I have to say this. One last time because I know I do not have forever anymore.”
I understood. “Go on, mom. Please, go on.”
“To him and his kind we do not exist. That is what is so upsetting me. We are here only to do what they want us to do for them. As invisibly as possible. And then to get out of the way. Their way. Yes he does charitable things but only for his religion. But if you don’t belong to his church and recognize his exalted status in it he dismisses and ignores you.”
“You really believe this?”
“Yes I do.”
“Then why is he running for president? If he has all the things you are saying? And mind you,” I quickly added, “I do not disagree.”
“He wants to become our president to keep us in the places he and his kind have assigned us to. Places they see to be natural for us. Not only to protect the privileges they already have and feel are their birthright—which is different than being entitled—but to make this a permanent arrangement. To get rid of all the things Roosevelt and Johnson and Obama have won for us so that we will forever know our places and be dependent on them for our very lives.”
I could hear her panting. “I’m . . . done,” she gasped. But after a moment added, as I was worrying, “Not with what you’re thinking. Life.”
I was relieved to hear that. “What then are you done with?”
“With them and their America.”
“Good. But now you need to rest. You need your rest.”
“Like your father used to say, ‘There’s time enough for rest when you’re dead.’”
“I remember that. It always sounded right to me.”
“To me too. So I’m not resting. I am turning on the TV and won’t take my Remeron so I can stay up to watch Michele speak. She’s speaking tonight at the convocation.”
“I’ll be watching as well.”
“I’m sure tonight there will be no empty chairs!” She laughed, gasping, at her own joke.
“And I won’t be dying. At least not tonight and not until November since I need to be here so I can vote. Though maybe I’ll do an early ballot just in case. That is, if we’re allowed to here in Florida.” Again she laughed.
“We can’t let them win. If I am right with what I’m saying this is a very important election. One of the most. So I’ll even rest if I have to.”