On my way home from work last week I passed a billboard that said, “The first person to live to be 150 is alive today.”
I told this to my son at Thanksgiving. I said, Maybe that will be you, Spence.
My father said, Maybe it will be me.
He was turning 97 in two days. He walked like an upside-down L, his torso almost parallel to the ground where it bent over his waist, cane wobbling in his hand as he made his way unassisted across a room, a parking lot, a doctor’s office, my house for Thanksgiving. His walker made him steadier, but he refused to leave the house with it, clinging to the cane, as vain as a great beauty dolling herself up long past her prime.
The thought of him living to 150 made me queasy. It seemed possible. He certainly showed no signs of dying. It was conceivable that he would never give up his place in the order of the universe and let my son be the one to live on. He had recently renewed his driver’s license. He spent his days driving from bank to bank, moving money around in search of the best interest rates. He clung to life so stubbornly it made you feel slightly murderous.
My ex-husband was at Thanksgiving too. He wanted to be with our son, plus he was the only one my father would let carve the turkey I’d cooked. Even when we were married my ex-husband used to say things like this about my father: He’s commanding. He’s gutsy. He has enough money to live forever. You only find him impossible because he’s family.
Well of course, I said, isn’t that true for everyone? Indeed, I found my ex-husband impossible, even after we weren’t married any more. At Thanksgiving he asked questions like, What did you do to the gravy? and Are you really going to let Spence eat like that?
My mother ate almost nothing, hunched in her wheelchair, smiling at my son, who was shoveling food in as fast as he could. How are your classes, Spence, she said, just as he turned away. We waited, but he didn’t turn back.
He’s doing great, I told my mother. Tell me how you are.
My son was the only man in the room that I loved fully, unquestioningly, and he was no picnic. He was willful and ADHD-ish and always looking for shortcuts in life, like finding the answers to math questions online rather than working them out himself. He was home from his first year of college. He ate most of the stuffing at Thanksgiving without a thought for anyone else, which I found flattering to my cooking but insulting to my mothering. I mostly raised him on my own, though my ex claimed to have been very involved.
These men and their memories!
For instance, my father claimed that I had been a happy child, seemingly forgetting how I spent much of my adolescence in my bedroom, strumming my guitar and writing songs about death. My ex often talked about how “we” had had to cope with my son’s challenges—the question of ADHD meds, the choice of school—when it had almost all been me. My son remembered his childhood as eighteen years spent enduring my anxieties about him, blissfully unaware of how life as his mother offered all the serenity of a heavy-metal band concert.
Clearly, no one wanted to give me any credit.
The turkey, everyone but my ex agreed, was delicious.
The man I had been seeing for a year wasn’t at my Thanksgiving. I missed his liquid voice, his long, languid fingers. I missed the feeling that having my lover at my table would somehow insulate me from the disapproval of these men, even though my lover was not un-critical.
My father called me over and spoke in what he thought was a quiet voice, but he was so deaf he was talking at full volume. You indulge that boy too much, he said. He’s gotten spoiled. I’ll have a talk with him.
No dad, I said, but I’m not sure he heard me. Still, he scowled and fell silent.
My mother was in the corner of the living room, the wheelchair out of the way so we could clear the table. I went over just as I heard my father say, Spencer, come here, in a tone I recognized as the prelude to a cascade of reproach. It was too late to turn back. I told myself it was okay; Spence would let my father’s criticisms roll off his back. Grandpa is just grandpa, he’d say. Plus every time he lectures me he gives me twenty bucks.
I sat next to my mother’s wheelchair. How are you feeling, Mama? I asked, touching her thinning hair, her papery cheek.
She smiled and patted my hand. Where’s Kevin? she said.
I had prepared for this question. I had planned to say that my lover was with his kids for Thanksgiving. But instead I told the truth. I cleared my throat. I said, Kevin says he’s uncomfortable at family gatherings. He says he doesn’t like being around lots of people. Spoken aloud, the words had a piercing brightness, like opening the refrigerator in the middle of the night.
Oh. My mother looked perplexed. Is that right? she said.
Presently, I asked if she wanted pie. She shook her head. She put her hand over mine. Hers felt as dry and ribbed as corduroy. She said, Thank you. She squeezed my hand, as if sensing that my eyes were burning. Behind us, my father lectured my son about clearing the table and saving his money. My ex laughed heartily, as if everything that happened in this house was a joke. I looked at my mother. She was a shrunken, sunken version of the self I’d known, but she was still in there, huddled in the wheelchair. I knew she remembered everything.