By Vincent Fitzgerald
The opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth blared through my cell phone, and I knew someone died. I assigned it as my mother’s ringtone to honor her knack for breaking news of neighborhood fatalities. In somber tones she eulogized the deceased and made death feel safe. That was before Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) ravaged her lungs, and withered her voice to a rasp. Now when she calls, screeches and gasps remind me her end is near, and what remains of her voice will go with her.
The disease has no cure; there is only relentless progression and the passage of time. My mother’s lungs never forgave her for thirty years of smoking, supplemented by tons of second hand smoke. When I was a child I often mistook her cigarettes for a sixth finger. She smoked in place of breakfast, and didn’t even pee until she ingested at least two. She always leaned against our washing machine with crossed legs while I wondered how those nasty things could be better than peanut butter.
I first heard my mother’s voice while I lived inside her belly. She read to me, sang songs, and coaxed me into the world. Her voice welcomed me to morning, and soothed me at night; caressed me when I cried, and when I cowered in corners. Now her voice is jagged, and random syllables are blocked by sludge in her throat. She gets frustrated when we talk on the phone, and I ask her to repeat words so I can fill missing syllables. To comfort her, I blame “shitty cell service,” or accrued wax in my ears, and I remain without comfort. Sometimes I just accept reality, and ask her to clear her throat so I can hear a brief restoration of the voice I wish I had bottled.
Aside from glitches in my mother’s voice, the cough of her cannula echoes every word, and occupies my old place on her couch. She used to tell me her children were her only necessity, but that was no longer true, and I felt displaced. Should she and her tank part for too long she could court death like she did when I found her unconscious and blue, poisoned by her own carbon dioxide. I shook her hard, but failed to wheedle a word. In the hospital we called it “even” because she gave me life, then I saved hers. I savored a glimpse of her old self when she removed the cannula in rebellious vanity for a picture. I was proud of her, but still rushed to snap the shot so as to not keep them detached.
To pass the time while she laid in her bed we recounted Friday nights in bingo halls where she played, and I fetched snacks for other players tips. I always prayed she won because it meant money for Sicilian Pizza after our dentist appointments when she reminded me not to chew on the numb side of my mouth. At the time, I was unaware clouds in those bingo halls punished her lungs and chipped away at her voice.
When we weren’t at bingo, I pushed boundaries by wandering further from home than my mother allowed. No matter how far I drifted, the voice found me, and dragged me home for supper. Relentless friends teased it turned corners and ignored traffic lights in pursuit, and in my embarrassment I often wished she lost her voice and her ability to mortify me. When I got home, mortification paid off in Sunday gravy waiting at our table. Sadly, her tank can’t bear open flame, and it has cost me her Sunday gravy and a beacon that brought me home.
On those Sundays we attended Mass together prior to gravy. Although I was too cool to sit with my mother, I identified her melody from wherever I sat. It floated through aisles, and reached all ears without help from a microphone. She wanted to sing for audiences since childhood, but was silenced by a mother who didn’t foster gifts, and only neighbors benefitted from her harmonies with friends around flames spat from garbage cans. She never found fame beyond cans and churches, and harmony abandoned her throughout her life, but no hardship squelched her desire to sing upwards because only appreciation motivated her. I thought it reasonable to suggest God would favor the faithful, but dedication didn’t stop Him from stripping her ability to hit high notes, and we have been at odds since.
God was not the only recipient of my mother’s notes. She sang them to my father while they were still married. Every day she crept behind him as he read the paper, draped her arms around him, caressed his ears with melody, and taught me about the art of romance through song. Because my father kept his ears closed, he didn’t hear her love, or nuzzle his face in her neck. All those notes fell to the floor and were swept away when my mother cleaned house. Before long the deaf ear was gone, and my mother never sang to another man. I wasn’t gifted a singer’s voice, but I still sing to my wife, not only to show love, but to honor my mother’s example.
After I moved out I celebrated fewer birthdays with the woman who birthed me, but she made sure none passed before I heard her annual rendition of Happy Birthday. She always called before I even left bed, and when I answered, she blew past “hello” and broke into song with velvet verve that comforted me as I lamented an added year. When I was younger I should have been less egocentric, and recognized how fragile is the human voice. Because I believed she would sing forever, I sometimes let her call go to voicemail, but my mother never wavered, and left a recorded message I could listen to whenever I needed a lift.
Her songs are whispered now, her words struggle to reach my ear, and my reluctance to listen in childhood is replaced by grown up regret. I used to drown her out with fingers in my ear or loud heavy metal, but now her voice is now obscured by faint noise, and I am forced to face reality my mother’s voice was gone by the time I decided to listen. One of these years my phone won’t ring, and I’ll wish I had recorded one of her birthday serenades. I’ll sing along, provide the harmony, and endure the cough of her cannula, imagining myself a baby sung a lullaby, because that is what I will remember. I refuse to remember my mother ravaged by disease, and shrunk from a robust woman to a wisp whose clothes hang loose. Every lost ounce takes a bit more of her voice, and a little slice of her life. Seasons she loved have turned malicious as summer humidity prohibits walking, and shards of winter wind pierce her lungs and steal her breath.
I was stricken by the inevitability of silence while we sat across from one another in a restaurant. Tables were filled with competing voices whose volume drowned out my mother’s whisper. I saw frustration in her eyes as she mustered strength necessary to belt words, and it stung to have her repeat herself so often. I reached for humor when I suggested we learn sign language, and a smile appeared where a bold laugh used to live.
When we left the restaurant. my mother’s steps were timid, and she covered her mouth with her scarf to keep from swallowing wind. I held her hand and guided her to our car in the distance, but after a few steps she collided with an impermeable wall of cold. In defeat, she said with only a stare further steps were impossible without crumbling under the weight of air. I was helpless and frustrated, and hated those years of smoking and rooms filled with second hand poison. Solace came only from what I realized was a familiar method of communication from a long time ago. We were speaking to each other like we did when I was a baby. As an infant I appealed with my eyes when I was hungry or sick, tired or happy. We returned to that time in our relationship, but in reversed roles, and I was reminded a round trip to helplessness is inevitable. As we waited for my wife to bring our car to us, my mind wandered toward life without the voice that guided me. Before the bittersweet moment escaped forever, I returned to it, appreciated our full circle relationship. and the time we have left. Eye contact and whispers might be all that remains of my mother’s voice, and should they prevail as our primary means of communication, I will be sure to blink a great deal less, and I will strain my ears until the last whisper fades.
Vincent Fitzgerald is a psychotherapist and writer from New Jersey. His work has been featured in various CNF journals, including Manifest-Station, and he has also blogged for several mental health organizations. He strives to blend his experiences as a therapist and client into his writing.