Nostalgia has attacked me full-bore lately. First it was the empty Denny's building under Military Highway that reminds me of the Denny's on First Avenue in Cedar Rapids. And then there was "White Palace," which I unabashedly love and have seen maybe 17 million times. I stayed up until 3 a.m. this morning basking in it on HBO 2. Holy s, Susan Sarandon and James Spader are hot together.
Anyway, I figured all this nostalgia meant one thing: it's time for another installment of Judy and The Pilot.
This will be a sort of short chapter because I don't know how much I can say about being at home to take care of my mom except that it was hard, but somehow to call it hard diminishes it, like the word is not big enough to hold me and comfort me for all I went through and all she suffered. It also doesn't touch what I gained from the experience. But I guess that's for a better writer to negotiate. I can say that I always felt like I was making mistakes, and that I missed her so much, even then, and that I was always afraid to answer the phone. And that I have random medical knowledge that I wear like a badge (saline, antibiotic, saline, heparin flush).
I came home to Cedar Rapids in August of 1998. I lived with my parents so that I could take care of my mom while my dad was still working. I was jobless for a couple months, eventually getting a job at my hometown paper as a news artist. My boss was understanding, letting me cater my schedule to stay at home during the day and take time off to take my mom to the hospital on short notice. I was the only artist in the two-person department because The Elusive Kristin was on maternity leave. A cat lover, I could tell from the pictures around her drawing table. Well-liked at the office. Into indie music. One slow night, snooping through the flat files, I found her old engagement announcement. It's funny. To this day, even though I've only seen it a couple times, I still think it's one of my favorite pictures of Jeffrey.
I mean, I didn't know him at the time. I met him a couple months later when he came in to use the art department's computers to look up music Web sites. He was kind of scary to me, because I'd only ever seen him smoking behind the building in a black knit OJ Simpson hat. But we started talking. I was going through a phase in which I was asking everyone I saw what books I should read before I die. He looked me straight in the eye and said, "Um, the Holy Bible? It's written by Almighty God. You might want to check it out."
Seriously. Perfect, yes?
So the next day he brought in 2 books for me: Airships by Barry Hannah and Civilwarland in Bad Decline (which I hear Ben Stiller wants to make a movie out of, dammit) by George Saunders. Well, I found Airships to be misogynistic and pointless, and George Saunders is still one of my favorite authors. (Please, please read the story on the link. It's only 2 paragraphs, but it's really, really good.) So the next day I brought back the Hannah book and told him that it "gave me pause to think. For instance, I thought, what kind of stupid motherf****r would bring me in this book to read?" He responded, "The kind of stupid motherf****r who thought you might enjoy literature."
So that was the beginning. Work was a distraction, and flirting was fun. And then The Elusive Kristin reappeared, and I found out that she and Jeffrey had been engaged many moons previous. It was weird to me at the time, but at this writing seems much less weird. I plodded along, working and hoping that my mom would get better.
In January of 1999, she went into the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. Her protein levels were way down because of ascites. We didn't know it, but she was never going to leave. The hospital staff saw our gigantic family there and moved us to the biggest room on the floor. We all spent a lot of time there, but I was at home asleep when I got the call early on January 24 that she had died. I don't remember much else from that day, and certainly nothing for public consumption, except for the fact that Denis called. He called me on the day my mother died. He didn't know, obviously. A candidate had fallen through or something so he was just calling to get a temperature check from me. When I told him she'd died, he asked when I might be ready to talk. I was ready to talk right then. I started five weeks later.
In the years that followed, I wondered if that call was somehow my mom watching out for me, sending me some shelter after she passed. And sometimes, when I'm not looking, that feeling comes over me again.