Cyn Kitchen’s first book, Ten Tongues, was published in 2010. Her fiction and nonfiction have also appeared in such places as The Louisville Review, Opium, Ars Medica and Midwestern Gothic. Cyn teaches creative writing and literature at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. More about Cyn is available at cynkitchen.com.
My ex-mother-in-law was calling the kids in search of company. She'd been in a nursing home for a few months, and once in awhile the gray loneliness of winter closed in on her, too much to bear. No one had time to visit her just then, and the home was only a block away. I wasn't doing anything anyway, so at 8:00 p.m. I put on my coat and walked the short block to where she stayed.
That time of night the doors are locked, so you have to push *123 on a keypad to get inside. I was glad I remembered this from my son's newspaper delivery days. It was too cold to stand outside. A fetid odor hit me as soon as I walked through the door. Lillian's room was down one long corridor, then left a few more doors. I made my way down the hallway, the thermostats set way too high making the air thick enough to taste. In the middle of the hallway sat a thin woman in a wheelchair. Her back was straight, hands folded in her lap. She had downy white hair combed to frame her face. I saw she was wearing pink lipstick with a blush of orange rouge on her cheeks. Her slate eyes had the look of a woman whose memory had been wiped clean. As I approached, she studied me. I made eye contact and said, “Hello,” and when I did, her face broke into a luminous smile. She held open her palms as if she was accepting a gift and then put them to her cheeks, letting out a sigh, "Oh my, to what do I owe this?" she said.
I stopped, dumb. I didn't know if I should pretend I was who she thought I was or keep walking. Should I ask questions? Make small-talk? She made me ache. I wanted to help, thought about pretending, playing along. But I'm a terrible actress.
"It's so good to see you," she said.
I patted her shoulder. "It's good to see you too."
At a loss for further conversation, I hurried on to my ex-mother-in-law's room.
Who had I been just then? Her daughter? Granddaughter? Friend? What world did we inhabit? How long had she been waiting for me?
I sat in Lillian's room for more than an hour. We chatted about the holidays and the kids and then the conversation came inevitably around to my broken marriage with her son. She misses having me for a daughter, especially since she's not warming up to my replacement.
"What do you think happened?" she says. "Bill thinks you didn't communicate enough."
I find this interesting, since he and I never talked about it, and now that nine years have passed since the divorce I doubt we ever will.
"For me it was about money," I say. "After sixteen years I was worn out with living in poverty, never having enough."
"That's what I told him." She's comforted by knowing, and by knowing that she knew.
She tells me she's ready to go home, but the doctor wants her to wait a couple more weeks. She’s met a woman who carries around a babydoll, pretends that it's real. "A grown woman," she says, exasperated. She doesn't know whether to ignore or acknowledge the doll, worried that if she fuels the illusion the woman won't get any better. I wonder, what could it hurt?
It's getting late, and the nurse needs to dress her for bed, so we say our good-byes. There's a lot more I could say to her. I could explain myself, tell her that I never meant to hurt her son. Tell her that I’m sorry I broke up the family and that my memories are good, in spite of all the bad. Then I think about the woman in the hallway again, and I decide that on my way out the door, I'm going to speak to her. I'm going to ask her name, and talk about the weather, and I'll be whoever she wants me to be, because in her world, it matters.
I give Lillian a hug, a genuine hug. I've never not loved her. Then I put my coat back on and start again down the long hallway toward the door. I look for the woman in the wheelchair, but she's no longer there, and I wonder, if I ever see her again will she know it’s me?