General Fiction posted June 8, 2014 Chapters:  ...4 5 -6- 7... 

This work has reached the exceptional level
At Paul's urging, Sarah visits her mother

A chapter in the book Enough to Miss Christmas

A Long Delayed Visit

by Fridayauthor

Sarah's feelings for Paul grow, but the vast difference in their worlds continues to be a problem.

     For the third night in a row Paul North left me at my door, no longer a sumptuous suite but a common room similar to my first-night quarters. I neither asked him to stay nor did he make any move to do so. It was as if both of us were aware of the evolution of our tenuous relationship and saw it wasn't the right time to further complicate it with physical involvement. Alone in my room, I pondered the following day; I'd spend hours more with Paul North and see my mother. I couldn't control the queasy churning in my stomach. Which chore was the more troublesome? Though our differences terrified me, part of me wanted this man in my life. Equally frightening was my agreement to see my mother for the first time in two decades.

     Doug and I were living in Germany when Mom suffered her first stroke. She wasn't expected to survive, or so my sister's cable read. In spite of the hurt I felt I wanted to fly home and see her. My husband insisted we didn't have the funds which were solely under his control. My not returning heightened the rift. While Suzie continued to keep me posted about mother's slow recovery, her letters became infrequent and impersonal. I responded, in a warmer tone, but we drifted apart.
     My mother survived that ordeal and several others. At first my excuse for not visiting was being stationed in Germany, later in England. When we relocated stateside my justification became more creative, but I'm sure less believable until it became obvious to my sister I'd abdicated my mother's care to her. When Suzie could no longer care for our mother at our family home, she was moved to a nearby care facility. I sent some money, mostly without my husband's knowledge, and more after he died, but I never visited.

     Suzie and Ben still live in our old homestead where she cared for mother for sixteen long years. I tried to rationalize Suzie's free lodging as offsetting care giving responsibilities but I knew I was selfish. My recent conversation with my sister multiplied my anguish tenfold.

     I joined Paul for breakfast the following morning. Our conversation centered on his children. He reported their reaction to my visit was favorable. This pleased him although in my opinion, with respect to Karen, the jury was undecided. Not my usual chatty self, I was content to let him expound on these two loves of his life.

     We left Boston shortly after nine. To keep the conversation away from my family, I asked Paul Karen's reaction to the death of her mother, just a year earlier.

     "She's a trouper," he answered as we motored west on the Massachusetts Turnpike.

     "Carol was ill a long time and confined to her room since Timmy's birth. Karen spent hours by her mother's bedside. Her death was upsetting but not unexpected. We don't dwell on the subject. Karen was a great help to Timmy in letting him understand what was going on. Both children have adjusted."

     "Has Mrs. Doberchek been there for them?"

     "Yes, for ten years. Carol hired her and she runs the house. There's a lot of turn over with the rest of the staff. We've gone through a number of nannies, cooks, helpers and nurses. Carol was hard on them. It's not like when I was growing up and we had the same service people for years."

     "How much domestic help do you have?" I asked.

     He seemed embarrassed. "Just Mrs. Doberchek, a cook and her helper and a couple of guys for the grounds. There are the teachers for the kids but they don't live there. The cleaning people come and go." Then he added, "Before Carol's death, we had nurses."

     I couldn't conceive of living so managed a life that everyday problems were outsourced. Maybe it's easier if it's all you're ever known. "Is that how you grew up too?" I asked.

     "We had more full time help but our life style was the same." Then he added, as if apologizing, "I try to be there for Karen and Timmy. My parents didn't even pretend."

     Knowing I'd hit a sore spot, I changed the subject. "How often are you out of town?"

     "More than I should. I'm trying to cut down. I'm away half the month but I make a point to be there for important dates and holidays. We do things together." He sounded defensive. Then he asked, "How was your growing up?"

     "Perfect," I answered, surprising myself at the haste and preciseness of my response. I added, "I mean it. My sister and I were my parents' life. We did everything together and were friends, confidants, playmates and a family. We all loved each other with a passion and would do anything for one other." I looked over at him but he just smiled. "That's the truth, no matter how corny it sounds. I wouldn't change a thing about my childhood." Did Paul wonder if my growing up years were so idyllic why I remained estranged from my mother and sister? He was too polite to ask.

     "Do you want to stop by and see your sister before we visit the nursing home?" he asked.

     "God, no! I'm supposed to be in Virginia and I'm far too tense to do all the explaining a drop-in visit would entail." I knew my reason was more complicated. I loved my sister. After her soul-baring conversation I was anxious to revive our stalled relationship. However, our reunion called for more than a quickie visit.

     As we approached our destination Paul recognized I was a bundle of nerves and suggested we stop for coffee. I agreed.

     "Sarah, you're a wreck," he said from across the table. "Calm down and be yourself."

     I took a deep breath and senselessly stirred my black coffee. "I know you're right. I'm doing what I should have years ago. My mother deserved far more than I gave her." I felt a wave of affection. He didn't quiz me with questions I couldn't answer and left me alone with my demons. We tarried for twenty silent minutes before returning to the car.

     "She won't even know me," I said, as an indisputable fact instead of my cowardly wish. "Suzie says she has days without recognizing anyone," I added, "When I faint, will you please drag me away so I don't scare the other patients?"

     The facility was smaller and nicer than I expected. My mind's picture of a nursing home conjured up an overcrowded facility with wheelchair-choked aisles of half-sleeping figures all resigned to their upcoming appointment with the grim reaper. Here, the usual medicinal smell was absent, replaced with fresh flowers. Residents chatted with one another and attendants smiled. The place was downright cheery. My emotions did a flip-flop. The brave but subconscious part of me wanted my mother to be alert and her old self while my cowardly side prayed for a sleeping figure who would not call her daughter to task for her twenty-year absence.

     A friendly woman at the desk directed us to Mrs. Blanding's room at the far end of the building. When I inquired about her condition, I was told with a smile that my mother had "good days and bad days." Today's condition wasn't specified. With mounting trepidation we made our way down a long corridor as I peeked in partially open doors. Not all the guests were up and about. Some were confined to hospital beds and some snoozed in chairs. At the door to my mother's room I took a deep breath as Paul put his hand in mine. He smiled as he pushed me forward, as if I'd bolt if not restrained.

     My mother sat in a rocker by the window, a book in her hands. While her frail body was but a fraction of what I'd last seen, I recognized her at once. She looked up at our entrance but didn't speak. Paul squeezed my hand tighter.

     "Hello, Mom," I managed in a quivering voice that sounded as nervous as I felt. There was no response for what seemed like minutes as she continued to stare at us. I was sure she didn't recognize me until she answered.

     "Hello, Sarah Jeanne. Suzie said you might visit." I couldn't help myself. I burst into tears and put my arms around her frail shoulders. "It's been a while," she added as she tentatively returned my embrace.

     When I was able to compose myself, I stepped back to look at this woman I loved so dearly. What in God's name was wrong with me to stay away so long? While she'd aged . . . after all, she was eighty-two . . . and had lost weight, her smile and her eyes remained unchanged.

     I nervously rambled away about how nice she looked and the pleasantness of her surroundings, adding a few other inane babbles while her eyes remained fixed on me, as if examining this prodigal visitor to her private world. She didn't interrupt my blather nor did she appear to notice Paul who stood politely by the door.

     "Mother, this is Paul North," I said. "He's a friend I recently met . . . at Michael's wedding."

     Paul stepped forward and took her hand. "I'm very pleased to meet you, Mrs. Blanding. You've raised a fine daughter."

     My mother smiled. "Sarah is a very good girl. When I lost my husband she took care of me until she let Douglas take her away. She was much younger then. Sometimes she does naughty or thoughtless things. All good girls do. She hasn't visited for a long time." I started to apologize but my mother put her finger to her lips shushing me. "Yes, of course you're forgiven but I'll have to think of a proper punishment." She turned to Paul. "Both of my girls are the delight of my life, but quite different. Do you know Suzanne?"

     "I've met her briefly . . . at her son's wedding; when I met Sarah."

     "Suzanne visits all the time, or so I'm told. Sometimes I have no recollection of her coming by. Suzanne is very conscientious but Sarah is more honest. I'm not much fun to visit."

     My mother's candor was a breath of fresh air. In that way, she was her old self but it shocked me as Suzie's reports of her condition were far less positive. It releived me she seemed to hold no rancor for my lengthy absence.

     We chatted for nearly an hour. I sat in a chair next to her, holding her frail hand while Paul perched on the edge of her bed. Talk centered on happy times gone by and my mother remained not only lucid but at times, funny. All her reminiscence predated my father's death as if happiness died with his passing. She appeared pleased with our visit causing me heart-wrenching guilt for remaining away so many years. During a lull in our memory trip she turned to Paul.

     "Are you married?"

     "No. My wife died about a year ago after a long illness."

     For the first time in our meeting my mother showed a hint of melancholy. "It's the saddest of life's burdens to lose a soul mate you love dearly." Then she asked Paul, "Do you plan to marry Sarah?" To his credit, he answered tactfully.

     "I would be honored but we've just met and I'm not certain of her feelings."

     My mother considered the answer. "Her last choice was a poor one but you seem to be an honorable man. Don't tarry too long. We get old quickly and Sarah's no longer a child." She looked up at him. "Do you have children?"

     "Yes. My daughter Karen is twelve and her brother Timmy is almost five."

     My mother pondered his answer. "I'd like to meet Karen. Twelve is a very impressionable age for a young lady." She added, "Timmy too, perhaps when he's a bit older." She smiled and turned to me. "I know girls so much better than boys."

     "I wish I did," Paul said. "Karen is bewildering at times."

     "Spend a lot of time with her and listen to what she says but don't lecture. Do you play games together?"

     "I play games with Timmy. I used to play with Karen but now she reads a lot."

     "Reading is wonderful but it's a solitary occupation. You should play Monopoly." I smiled as I remembered. "We had fun, didn't we, Sarah?"

     "I was never very good at Monopoly," I answered.

     "You always bought the cheap properties. You weren't much of a wheeler dealer. Your sister bought the blue properties and the green ones. She beat us all."

     "Do you remember the property names?" I asked. I was amazed at the level of her recall.

     "Of course," she answered. "There were Pennsylvania Avenue, and Boardwalk, right on the corner . . . I remember all the names and the playing pieces too. Now that your father's gone, we'll have to retire the little car. You can still have the shoe and I'll take the thimble. Suzanne will still want the canon. Paul can join us and Karen too."

     I laughed. "Paul would be a whiz at Monopoly. That's what he does for a living."

     Mother smiled. "Your father wasn't a very good player. I never could tell if he was letting you win or if he was naturally inept. He was much better at cards."

     I didn't want to overstay our visit but before leaving, I asked if there was anything my mother needed. She requested reading material, mystery novels.

     "I spotted a store on the road coming in," Paul said. "We'll be right back." We left and once in the car, Paul commented on how engaging my mother was. "I thought she'd be . . . senile. Instead, I met a delightful woman who has a wonderful sense of humor, and a great memory."

     "I'm shocked. It's as if the mother I grew up with was resurrected from the grave. I don't know what to say. I haven't seen her like this since my father died. Her condition was nothing like my sister described." I was floating on a cloud.

     "There are all sorts of new drugs and therapies. Let's be thankful for the visit and that she's so serene and lucid."

     I touched his arm. We both knew the sole impetus for the trip was his not so subtle urging. "Thank you for pushing me into what I should have done on my own," I said.

     We made our book purchases at a small store in town and returned to the care facility. My mother was still in her chair reading but as I approached, a strange look came over her face. It took me a moment to realize she had no idea who I was. I was shocked for the second time in the day.

     "You must be looking for Mrs. Olsen," she said. "Her room is down the hall."

     "I'm your daughter," I blurted out.

     "You're not my daughter Suzie and my other daughter never visits." She looked at Paul as if he too were a stranger. "You're the striking image of Mr. Baker. He'll be pleased to see you. He said his son was coming by." She resumed reading. I bit my lip and turned away to leave the room, unable to contain my tears. Paul approached my mother.

     "We brought you some books." He placed them on the table next to her.

     She looked directly at me. "That's very nice. You must be the book lady."

     I didn't want to be the book lady. I wanted to be the daughter and I ached for my mother to return from her nether world. She smiled and resumed reading. We made half-hearted excuses and backed from the room.

     The forecasted rain proved accurate and the deluge began in earnest as we began the two-hour drive back to Boston. Paul tried unsuccessfully to put a positive spin on my mother's dramatic mood change, saying she was overly tired from our earlier visit, but disappointment buried me in melancholy. We lapsed into an eerie silence, pretending to listen to the car radio until stopping for a light supper at a roadside chain. I nibbled at a grilled cheese sandwich while Paul's eyes showed concern for my depression. I felt obliged to apologize.

     "I'm approaching this all wrong, I know. The day's been a roller coaster of emotions and I need time to sort it out. I'll be fine. You were right in coaxing me to visit my mother. I should have realized what Suzie and everyone meant by good days and bad days. I saw both. I'm just thankful for the order they appeared. If she hadn't recognized me when we first stopped by, I might have never come back. Now I know I will."

     Paul nodded in agreement. "Perhaps you can take Karen along."

     Once more, we parted at my hotel room door, with the familiar hug and a kiss. I hung on a moment longer. God knows I wanted him to stay. We arranged for Paul to pick me up for my early morning flight to Washington. Though the details remained unsaid, we both knew we'd see more of one another.


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Enough to Miss Christmas is a family love story, about sisters, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, parents and children. But mostly it tells the story of a stepmom and a precocious young lady and how they bonded in spite of overwhelming odds.
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