I first saw the chair in a catalogue, the kind we all get too many of with thick red and green pages, the kind that land in our mailboxes before the holidays with a thud, the kind of shiny wish-book that draws us, even if reluctantly, into its pages in search of the elusive perfect gift.
The chair caught my eye. It was almost Christmas, my mother’s last, and she was so puffy and swollen from the steroids she hated to see herself in the mirror. She mostly complained about not being able to cook, that she “couldn’t even stand up long enough to boil soup.” She’d tried pulling up a chair but the sitting/standing/sitting/standing routine wore her out, and she’d cried on the phone with me, “I feel like I’m just waiting.” When I saw the chair I saw a solution: this adjustable, portable, ladder-like contraption was just what my mother needed. I got out my credit card and dialed 1-800.
No matter our age, it’s so hard to understand what our mothers need. Looking back, I wonder if I ever stopped staring into my own mirror—worrying about some weight I’d gained or a bad haircut or the wrong clothes—long enough to care. There would be time for that later, right? Later, there would be time?
When I was eight, I discovered my single mother was having an affair. Let’s call him Jack. Jack was married with two little kids and worked nights as a delivery driver for Purolator, a FedEx-like company, and he lived in our very small town in a nice ranch-style house you could see from the main road. Sometimes my mother and I would drive by on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon to see if he might, by chance, be outside mowing the lawn or washing the car or even throwing the football with his son. Jack never waved, never acknowledged my mother or me in any way, and we didn’t wave either, but I swore I could see Jack tip his head a little and I felt my mother slow the car just a bit and, with that slowing, I felt the electricity that passed in the space between them.
And yet, the truth was, Jack and my mother never saw each other much. They certainly never went anywhere together, and my mom sometimes went weeks without hearing from him. But for almost five years my mother and Jack were “together,” which is to say he simply stopped by, occasionally, when he could, late at night, during his shift. My mother needed Jack. At just eight and ten and twelve years old, I knew that.
Five years is a long time in a small town. People found out, or thought they did. People talked. People gave her, and in turn gave me, their side-eyed looks. People shunned us, and this terrified me. Now, as a grown woman and married myself, I certainly get it, but looking back all I can see is my mother and me in that place, outcast and apart and standing alone in our town, and how my fear brought out something protective and good and defiant and strong in me. What she was doing was wrong, yes, of course it was, and I’m not here to argue it wasn’t (nor would she) but what no one else could see was this: because my mother had Jack – or really just the idea of Jack, he was so rarely “there” – she did not go out partying or to bars, never went drinking with friends, never traveled or pawned me off on someone else, never went looking for a man. My mother, it seemed to me in those five years, spent all of her time, every spare minute while not at work, at home, with me. What a gift that was.
Which brings me back to the chair. I ordered the chair late, a last minute, expensive Christmas effort to fling myself and my love across too many miles, not knowing, or not wanting to know, it was already too late for my mom. Too late for things like special chairs and extraordinary measures. “It’ll have to ship overnight,” the 1-800 lady said, “if you want it to get there on time.”
And that’s how Jack, all these years later and delivering late night packages, showed up on a cold evening the week before Christmas, my mother’s last, under the porch light on her doorstep. They had not seen each other for 25 years.
“Judy,” he said, propping the Stand Alone chair she would never use inside the screen door, “you’re still beautiful.” She told me later he still looked the same, said it was such a miracle seeing him standing there she’d forgotten her sickness, her broken body, her swollen face; she’d forgotten, for those few lovely minutes under the porch light, how long it had been since she’d felt like herself. How long since someone, even me, had looked at her up close and into her hazel eyes. Really looked at her. How long since a man who gave her goose bumps had told her she was beautiful. How very little our mothers sometimes need. How very much my mother, dying at age 56, needed something, someone, besides me.
Teri Carter’s essays can be found in The Manifest-Station, Columbia, Post Road, West Branch, and other journals and anthologies. She has a B.A. from the University of Minnesota, where she was awarded the Marcella de Bourg Fellowship in creative writing, and she holds an MFA from San Jose State. Teri lives in Northern California where she is working on her first book.
Featured image courtesy of Tiffany Lucero.