BY NORAH WAKULA
This story won an Honourary Mention at the gritLit Readers and Writers Literary Festival, 2018 and was previously posted on the gritLit Readers and Writers Literary Festival 2018 website, April, 2018. Copyright is held by the author.
“WE HAVE to take off your mother’s rings.” Mary, the head nurse called out to me. “Her fingers. The rings are cutting into them, and into her hand.”
I’d hoped to make a quiet entrance. Slip by the nursing station and make it down the hallway to my mother’s room before anyone noticed.
“I’m sorry, Norah, but your mom won’t be able to wear her wedding rings anymore.”
“Have you talked to her about it?” I said as I walked to the desk and plopped three plastic shopping bags stuffed with toiletries down onto it.
“No, we haven’t. We didn’t think there’d be much point.”
I said nothing, letting the information sink in.
“No, no, Norah, don’t worry.” Mary recognized my look. “We didn’t talk about the rings with your mom — not because we thought she wouldn’t understand. We didn’t say anything to her because there’s nowhere on the unit to keep them safe,” she said, reaching for my hand, the one entangled in a plastic bag handle, and waited until I looked her in the eye. “We didn’t want to take them off until you got here.”
Still holding my hand, Mary turned toward the calendar on the back wall next to the large eraser board where the staff marked the residents’ birthdays and their comings and goings. “We figured you’d be visiting soon.”
My pattern had become familiar. For the past four years, once a month I’d make the weekend trek from Toronto to Winnipeg to check up on my parents in the nursing home where they now lived.
“I’ll talk to her, but I doubt she’s going to give up wearing her wedding rings. Not willingly.”
“It’s not a matter of choice.” Mary clenched her hands tight. “Her fingers all scrunched up like that. Your mom’s in danger — serious danger — of developing a fungal infection.”
“I know. I know,” I said. “I’m not disputing the necessity, Mary. I just hope it won’t be too much of a struggle to convince her to take them off.”
“You have to,” she called after me as I made my way down the corridor. “Today.”
I wasn’t hopeful. My mother had been stripped of pretty much everything that had once belonged to her and what remained of her marriage. Her wedding rings were the only tangible evidence of the life she’d once known.
A few months after we moved our parents into the nursing home, my brother and I sold the house where they’d lived the last 50 years. We carted off furniture, clothing and chatchkas to Good Will. All the handiwork: dozens of unfinished knitting and crochet projects — useless to anyone now — we tossed into the trash; and the wool we’d discovered crammed into cupboards and dresser drawers, we donated to charity. What was left? A few odds and sods of clothing hanging in a small Ikea wardrobe. A coat, scarf and mittens she’d worn only once since her arrival. A rickety dresser, like the wardrobe provided by the nursing home, held some nightgowns and a few pieces of under things. The small green suitcase we’d carried her clothes in nested on the top of the wardrobe. The dusty rose recliner, the last of her furniture, we’d crammed into the corner of the small room.
And, in the adjoining wing, a husband who no longer remembered that he had a wife — although on several occasions he’d been caught trying to crawl into bed with a woman down the hallway who everyone agreed bore a striking resemblance to my mother.
It was a bright prairie morning, but my mother’s room was dark. In spite of coaxing to the contrary, she preferred the curtains closed. She claimed the brightness hurt her eyes. This may have been true, but I think her desire for darkness had more to do with wanting nothing more to do with the sun.
When I entered the room, my mother was sleeping. Although short in stature, my mother had been a hearty woman, yet her physical decline had been swift. Her weight loss so rapid her false teeth no longer fit, and the rigidity that had crept through her body and overtaken her limbs had moved up to her face and jaw. Her denture-less mouth stretched open into a large “O” evoking an unsettling homage to Edvard Munch’s, The Scream. Even in sleep, her arms were thrust straight up in the air as if she were reaching out for something just beyond her grasp. In each hand, she clenched a white wash cloth rolled up into a soft tube.
I looked at her troubled fingers. On her left hand, she wore three rings: a wedding and an engagement ring and nestled beneath them, a family ring made up of four stones. An emerald for my father’s birthday in May. A chip of icy diamond for mine earlier in the spring. And, two yellow-gold citrines for my Scorpio mother and brother.
I pushed aside the afghan my mother had crocheted a few years back when her fingers were still nimble. Planting my hands on its puffy arms, I let the recliner envelop me as I settled down into it. I must do something about this damn thing, I thought. The last few visits Mary had asked me to remove it. The room was small and the staff couldn’t maneuver around it to attend to my mother’s increasing needs. Rather than a place to relax, it had become a hazard. But how could I get rid of it? In this overstuffed recliner, my mother used to hold court.
It was in this throne, only a few years before, my mother sat when I confessed to her that I’d lost my own wedding ring.
“Oh my god, Mom, My wedding ring. It’s gone.”
“It must be somewhere,” my mother said, her frame near devoured by the bulk of the armchair. She leaned forward. “How could you lose your wedding ring?”
“I don’t know. I was in the bathroom,” I said. “When I went to wash my hands. My ring. It was gone.”
I caught her eyes brighten, the way they always did when she smelled trouble.
I’d been married less than a year. A quick ceremony with a few friends at the Justice of the Peace. And this trip, a short visit to introduce my new husband to my folks. My mother was in the spot she’d been sitting pretty much since our arrival — the recliner parked beside the living room picture window. Here, she could watch the suburban world go by. Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything of interest to see. A car passing by every few hours. From time-to-time a neighbour walking by with a dog.
There had been a change in my mother. The last time I’d seen her she’d been vibrant and spry but now she could only take a few steps without the aid of a walker she’d acquired since my last visit. My father, once broad-shouldered and strong, had become frail himself. He hadn’t the strength to help my mother walk up and down the outside steps. This once gregarious, if mercurially tempered woman, was now rendered housebound. Instead of the incessant chatter I’d grown to know, if not necessarily love, she’d become silent. It wasn’t like her not to hold court especially with a new audience. And what better audience could a mother ask for than a recently acquired son-in-law? An audience she could tell of past misdeeds and mischief I’d gotten into as a child.
My husband, John, and my dad were in the basement fixing my father’s super-8 projector. I was flitting back and forth between the living room and kitchen attending to the chicken I was roasting for Sunday lunch — sliding the roasting pan in and out of the oven checking to see if it was done.
“It’s got to be somewhere,” my mother said. “It couldn’t just fall off.”
Actually, it could. I’d lost 10 pounds since our friend, Ivaan, the Lord of the Rings, had designed and forged my wedding ring. On a number of occasions in animated conversation, I’d flung my ring across a room.
I was worried about the possible loss of my ring, but alongside the panic the thought occurred to me: This could be an opportunity. This is something my mother and I, a relatively new bride, could share. My mother had wanted me to have children. Not to spoil them. Not to slather them with love. She was as ill-equipped at grand-mothering my two nieces, as she had been at mothering me. Her yearning for my progeny was more self-serving. “Just wait. Just wait until you have your own children,” she’d said. “Then you’ll know what it’s like to be a mother. Then you’ll understand. Then you’ll understand me.”
I never had children.
Maybe now that I was married we could commiserate about what it’s like to be a spouse – to be a wife. Not that I ever wanted to find myself in a similar situation as my mother when it came to marriage, but, perhaps like some I Love Lucy character, I could share some of my marital mishaps with my mother.
“I have to find it.” Not only was the ring a symbol of our commitment, it was one of a kind, irreplaceable — entwined threads and nubbins of gold — something a Celtic water nymph might wear. Not that I bear a remote resemblance, in appearance or temperament, to any kind of water creature.
“I’ve been married 61 years. Sixty-one years,” my mother said. “Never even came close to losing my wedding rings,” Her grey eyes narrowed, deepening in colour. “Not once.”
I didn’t take the bait. Instead, I leaned in, narrowing the distance between us, and confided,” And it’s not the first time, Mom. It happened once before.”
“The second time?” she said, her eyes now dancing. “You haven’t even been married a year.”
“Yeah, the second time,” I said, theatrically, opening my eyes wide. “Last fall John and I went to a jazz club. With a friend of his. I was tired so I left early. I was rinsing the soap off my face and when I looked up in the mirror, my wedding ring was gone.” I touched the finger where my ring should have been. “It’d been kinda loose. I thought, when I was talking, it might flown off,” I said, with a grand sweep of my hand. “I thought of going back. But the bar was packed. Even if the ring was there, I would’ve been impossible to look for it.”
“Did you find it?” She’d shimmied to the edge of the recliner.
It took every ounce of will not to say “duh” but I was happy she was engaging in the drama rather than apathetically slumping in her chair.
“I checked every surface in the apartment. Then it occurred to me. I’d been wearing gloves. You know those cheap dollar store kind. Maybe. Just maybe, when I took them off, I’d slipped the ring off, too. I’d rolled them up into a little ball,” I said, miming my actions, “and when I unravelled them, there it was. My wedding ring caught on a piece of yarn.”
“You were lucky. Go,” she said. “Go look for it. Before Dad and John come up from the basement.”
Even though I was worried about the whereabouts of my ring, I was happy that my mother and I could collaborate on something — a common goal.
Just as I was leaving the room, she called me back.
“When was the last time you checked the chicken?”
You’ve got to be kidding. She’s thinking about lunch? I thought but stopped myself from saying it. “About ten minutes ago.”
“Before you lost your ring. When you came from the kitchen. You were wearing oven mitts.”
I raced out of the room.
“Go check the mitts,” I heard her call after me.
In the kitchen, I grabbed the yellow flowered mitt from the counter and stuck my hand into it. As my mother had predicted: the ring. I pranced into the living room carrying the offending mitt in my right hand, my wedding ring sat in its proper place on my left.
“Thanks, Mom,” I said, reaching down to give her a hug. “Now, Mom, remember,” I said, speaking slowly for emphasis, “this . . . is . . . between . . . you . . . and . . . me. Please, . . . don’t tell John.”
Now this was a tall order for my mother, and I should have thought about it long before this moment: my mother was incapable of keeping a secret. How many times as a kid had I confided in her, making her promise never to tell? The first opportunity, out it would come. I suppose it was magical thinking on my part, but I’d hoped under the circumstances — this Wives’ Club we were forming — this one time, she’d be discrete.
“Mom, it’s better that John doesn’t know,” I said, pulling back from her so I could look her in the eye. “Promise?”
She shifted her eyes to the left.
“Mom, it’s not like you haven’t spilled a secret before. Do you promise?” I said.
She pursed her lips, fixed her gaze on an imaginary spot on the ceiling, and nodded her head, yes.
A few moments later John came up from the basement, leaving my father downstairs, I imagined still futzing with the projector. He poked his head around the corner. “What have you two been up to?
“Nothing,” my mother answered, looking back up at the spot on the ceiling.
I beaded in on her; she smiled back at me, coyly.
“I think the chicken’s almost done,” I said, grabbing the oven mitt from the coffee table where I’d tossed it. “I’ll give it one last look-see.”
“Then I’ll sit for a minute,” John said as he moved toward the sofa.
I tapped his shoulder with the mitt as we passed. “Don’t get too comfortable.”
“So, Helen, what’s up?” John said, relaxing onto the couch.
“Norah lost her wedding ring.”
I hadn’t even rounded the corner.
“Yeah, I know. Back a couple of months ago.”
“No, she lost it, again,” she said. “Just now,” then whispered, “but I’m not supposed to tell you.”
A few years earlier I would have burst back in to the room and called her out for her betrayal. Instead, I leaned against the wall in the hallway, and laughed. The mother I knew hadn’t been lost — not yet, anyway.
Watching my mother sleep, I wondered why I was so upset she couldn’t wear her rings anymore. What did her wedding rings mean to me? Yes, they were all that remained of her home and of her marriage, both of which I was determined never to duplicate. A home that to me, even when she was younger and mobile, represented a type of prison sentence in the suburbs. And, a marriage that to call tumultuous would have been a Herculean understatement. “We’re only together because of you kids,” both my mother and father had said. To set them free, I moved out into my own apartment shortly after my nineteenth birthday. Yet, forty years later, they were still together — technically, at least.
Besides living with a boyfriend for a year when I was 21, I’d avoided any kind of common-law arrangement or marriage until I married John at fifty-two. Of course, if I’d married younger, I wouldn’t have had to live in the suburbs. I wouldn’t have had to make the marital and childbearing decisions my mother had. It had just seemed simpler to avoid it altogether.
When my brother and I had emptied the house, I’d kept all my mother’s jewelry — mostly cheap costume stuff from the 1960s and a few filigreed rings of pink Russian gold. I’d coveted those rings since my mother brought them home from Ukraine in 1972 — the year my parents made their first trip back to my father’s village since he’d left it during the German occupation. Those rings looked so elegant on my mother’s fingers — slender and long and always manicured, but never a salon job. Instead, she’d use her own spit as a lubricant, pushing back the cuticles with the nail of her opposite thumb.
I’d never given a thought to her wedding rings.
My mother’s eyes opened.
“Hi, Mom,” I said, moving toward the bed to give her my customary three kisses. She flinched at the sudden touch of my lips, not certain yet who was in the room. “Mom, it’s me, Norah.”
Her mouth relaxed when she recognized my voice.
“Mary says your wedding rings are cutting into your hand,” I said, placing mine on her shoulder.
“She’s worried that you’ll get an infection. She thinks it’d be better if you didn’t wear them anymore.” I continued, wondering how I was going to pry open her fingers. “Is it okay if I take them off?”
She stared up at me, looking not confused exactly, more like a guileless child.
“Can I?” I said, pressing her arms down toward the bed.
She nodded her consent. Her eyes, cloudy, searching for mine.
“Are you sure?” I knew they had to come off but I was surprised at how easily she acquiesced.
“Y-a-a-a-a-a-h” she said. For the past few months my mother’s speech hadn’t been much more than a moan — a mouthful of vowels unburdened by consonants.
I unfurled each of her fingers afraid they would crack and break.
“Does this hurt?” I said, as I began to strip her of the last remnants of her previous life.
She shook her head, “N-a-a-a-a-h.”
Her hand now open in the shape of a crescent moon, I worked the rings over her gnarled knuckle. The wedding and engagement ring wriggled off as a pair. The family ring was a little more stubborn. Once past the knuckle, the rings slid easily into the palm of my hand.
The rings that signified weighty things — almost the sum of a life, 66 years of marriage, a family, a home — felt light, insignificant in my hand.
Had I expected them to be heavy — gold and shards of stones?
I don’t know what possessed me but I felt the words form and flow, “Mom, would you like me to wear your wedding rings?”
As if she’d been waiting for me to ask the question, my mother moved her head up and down and said, “Yes,” crisply, with an audible “s”.