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My Mother's House: A Memoir
By: Alexa Wolf
© 2007 by Alexa Wolf.

Reprinted by permission of the author

The Night It Rained

I think of the times my mother might have died and didn't: when she dropped unbatlike from the steel bar across the top of her bedroom door and hit her shoulder on the floor; when the neighbor caught her as she lost her balance on the small dirt path to her walkway, halting her backward fall toward the sidewalk cement; when the drive-by shooting missed her; when she escaped the couple who wanted her to get into their truck; when her car broke down, as it seemed to do every other month and always at night, and countless, kind people stopped to help her and make sure she got home safely.

Then there was the night it rained. At a familiar intersection on her way home, Mother made a right turn and the steering wheel stuck. "The wheels only turned right!" she narrated to me on the phone the moment she got home. "The car just went around and around in the middle of the intersection - and the rain was pouring - the night was just black - for almost ten minutes."

"What did you do?" My mouth dry, I pictured the surrealistic scene she described. This was exactly the kind of thing I feared for her.

"I kept my foot very lightly on the accelerator. It was harrowing, utterly harrowing! The car drifted in circles very slowly toward the right. Finally it edged over just far enough for me to park at a curb."

"What about traffic?"

"That was the strangest thing. Not a single car entered the intersection. In fact, there wasn't one car at any of the four streets."

"Then who helped you?"

"I was a couple blocks from a gas station. After I stopped the car, I walked there and called the Auto Club."

A week later, arriving home, Mother called me. "I was at the same intersection tonight. It wasn't raining, but it was jammed with traffic. I've never been at that intersection when every street wasn't backed up with cars."

I envisioned her brown eyes widening with awe, horror and the objective fascination intrinsic to her imagination as she went on, "And here it was just like that again, the heavy traffic. Just a week ago there was no one. If my car had done that any other night?" Dread seeped into her voice. "It was eerie, I can't tell you. I sat there about to make a right turn just like last week. It was like a Twilight Zone."

And the week before played in her mind like a simultaneous reality, the night, the rain, the streetlights and their reflection on the street, the anomalously empty intersection, her car going round and round and round - as her story goes around within me now.

One day when my mother was a young woman of twenty, she developed a soaring, mysterious fever. She left work and, rather than return to her apartment, she dragged herself to her mother's house. When the door opened to her knock, she said, "Mother..." and passed out in the doorway. Her mother, the nurse, took care of her and brought her back from whatever deadly illness had struck. But when my mother was eighty-six, her own mother had been dead for thirty-five years and her beloved husband for twenty. She went into the hospital for hip surgery and afterwards to a skilled nursing care hospital for recovery, and she had only me to protect her.

But my illnesses, driven by my strange retroviral infection and the loud noise and enmity in my apartment that ignited that infection - those illnesses, which once had sealed our reconciliation, would now make it impossible for me to do for my mother what she needed.

The hospital discharge planner gave me the name of a skilled nursing care hospital; but to see her there would take me over three hours round trip on the bus. "That will be really hard for me to get to."

She replied, "The next closest skilled care hospital that's contracted with your mother's HMO is in Lancaster."

"Lancaster?" It might as well be El Segundo. Lancaster had to be five hours round trip by bus and a minimum of an hour each way by car, assuming I could find someone to drive me, an effort upon which I could never depend.

No, I had to be able to see Mother. And she had to go to a hospital that was contracted with her HMO or she'd pay out-of-pocket, three to five thousand dollars a month, depending on where she went. So she went to the hospital that the discharge planner advised, the only one contracted with her HMO to which I could get; the one to which, if only once a week, Susie, who is helping me now at Mother's house, ended up driving me.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell says that in fairy and folktales, the dragon, who demands virgin sacrifices and steals gold from the city or village, symbolizes "the system." By which he meant the system of power under which we live.

"You have to be there," friends told me, of Mother's hospital stay. I didn't believe it.

Mother and I were about to become dragon chow.

I tell myself it wasn't my fault! It was the system, and the power of the system, and my ignorance about the system, my naive trust in its professional caretakers despite the fact that one after another proved incompetent or worse. With each fresh incident I thought, This is an anomaly. I tell myself that you don't know what you don't know until it devours you. And it did.

In my fatigue it all flowed past me. There was too much I didn't see and when I did see it, when something happened right in front of me, I didn't understand; and even when I understood, or to the degree I understood, I hadn't the strength to fight for my mother as hard as the situation demanded.

I tell myself it was the dragon.

But the moment I turn my mind to the past, jagged fragments of memory come hurtling back at me and frantic wings of blind terror beat adrenalin through my blood. Wrong! You did it wrong! And where is she now? Gone!

Staring at the redwood deck of my mother's uninhabited house, I remember our too-few visits and tumble into the bleak void of our loving past and my motherless present.

Where is my mother? What happened?

Ten days after her surgery the doctors still didn't know what caused her internal bleeding. But they threw a couple of drugs at her, and in general she'd recuperated enough from the operation to go to a skilled nursing care hospital.

There was no one now to catch her fall.

Alexa Wolf

Alexa Wolf lives in Los Angeles and loves birds. For many of the eight years she spent writing MY MOTHER'S HOUSE, her little bird kept her company. Captain Kirk the Parakeet will be the subject of her next memoir. Meanwhile, Alexa makes jewelry -- especially bird jewelry.

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