A friend sends me a birthday card with a piñata on the cover and the words, “There ought to be more days when you can whack at something with a stick.” I laugh because it is code for “This is how well I know you across the miles.” She knows that some days I could take a stick and whack it at something from sunup to sundown.
A couple of weeks ago, my mother awakened from a nap and began counting: “Twenty four, twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twenty-nine …” I waved my hand in front of her face saying, “Mom, Mom, what are you counting?” and she would not stop, just kept looking at some invisible line of sheep or birds or trucks parading by and tallying them up aloud. It’s as if during sleep her mind reverted to a numerical code, like a computer screen gone gray and showing a series of numbers. What did these numbers mean? Did strings of them conjure up images of people or events? What happened when she stopped counting? Did the pictures in her mind fizzle abruptly like a switch going off, or did they hang there for a moment before slowly dissolving?
In my mind, a different kind of code: $$$. How many $s will cover an extra night of care for my mother? How many $s would it take for a good residential facility? The latter’s an easy one because we don’t have enough $s. My code runs in the opposite direction, too, into the realm of negative numbers. If Congress cuts Mom’s Medicaid, how many hours or $s of day care, of home companion care will we lose? How many more $s will I have to earn to make up that loss? More importantly, will I be able to do so?
My sister calls in the morning, and I hear her coaxing Mom, hoping that she can dredge a few words from her vanishing mind and sing. But I hear only my sister’s voice. At the end of the song she says, “Mom, you know the words.” And my mother joins her in singing. She had her mouth open but nothing came out at first, my sister explains. Code: “I remember this song. But what does it mean?” The word “birthday” no longer bears any relation to the question she asks incessantly when I am with her: “How old are you?” Would numbers — thirty-nine, forty, forty-one, forty-two, forty-three — have brought to mind a cake and lit candles?
In the card, my friend includes two sticks of gum wrapped in silver paper. I don’t have to put them to my nose to know they are Wrigley’s, but I inhale their minty fragrance anyway. They bring to mind thirsty afternoons of marching on a football field; band uniforms that smelled of mildew no matter how many times we dry-cleaned them; climbing rocks at Hueco Tanks; a school trip during which we sneaked back to the buses where I tossed candies in her mouth until one lodged in her throat and she nearly choked. Once, she drove me home in my own car after I’d had too much too drink, stuck a piece of gum in my mouth and said, “I’ll call you tomorrow.” Then she ran off into the night. Years later, when she took a deep breath and in halting words told me she was gay, I rolled my eyes and said, “Yeah, I know. What took you so long to tell me?”
Now, I slip the gum back into the card and smile. There will be more days when there aren’t enough sticks or piñatas in the world.
© Beatriz Terrazas 2011, All Rights Reserved