The River Inside
by Michael Royce
followed by Q&A
“He simply did not see how the universe opening
inside him was the same as the river inside his mother
unwinding at its own pace, taking her away,
following the only course it knows.”
“Lightning at Dinner,” p. 17, Jim Moore, 2005
In companionable silence, Mother and I sat at the breakfast table as her beloved black and white spaniel lumbered toward us. His once-muscled body was withered; his skin marred with mysterious lumps of fatty tissue that had developed as he aged. Heaving himself ponderously onto the table, he stood on his hind legs beside Mother. His sturdy paws anchored him as he ate her bacon and casually licked her hands and plate.
“Down Mac,” I commanded. He ignored me.
Pivoting slowly, my mother’s face was closed to me. "Don't," she said. Her voice was low and flat and mad.
I understood her long-held belief that dogs should not be constrained. I knew, too, how her personality had changed and warped as the neuronal tangles in her brain flowered from the Alzheimer’s disease she refused to acknowledge. But that didn't lessen the hurt of her anger.
Life was measured for my mother in dogs. Jenny, Rose, Kiki, Jenny II, and finally Mac, her companion in the decline of her last years. Like a babushka doll, each oval of her life was encircled in time by the reign of a new dog. Had she accepted the span of each as a separate phase measuring her progress against a finite end? By the time of her angry reprimand, she had forgotten all the dogs of her past and knew only Mac.
And she also still recognized me as her son. Despite being an adult with children and grandchildren of my own, I remained forever the son in our relationship. We both lived with our own memories, our separate truths, of the different stages of our intertwined lives. But there was one immutable reality; she would be my mother for all time.
As a child, my first memory was of our home on Ogden Avenue in Milwaukee. I stood in a room alone, aware of myself and where I was. My mother is not there and no camera captured the moment. These were the days of Jenny.
A year later, perhaps when I was four, I was supposed to be asleep one night, but thoughts of death kept me awake. “Will you die? Will I die?” Needing answers, I remember my terror as I crept down the stairs to my parents’ room.
They would not have said they would never die or that I wouldn’t age. To their core, they were too rationalist to evade truth in that way. I can’t remember the specifics of their response, but in the end, it left me with the understanding that they, and finally I, were mortal. As I digested this, calm replaced my fear.
Had their answer been as simple as saying death is a long way in the future? And I, as a child, conflated time stretching so far into the distance with never?
But it was not true. We aged and, as the elusive future became the present, my parents grew elderly. Father was the first to pass away.
When my mother died, I was already old. I received the call in Vienna where I had just arrived after biking from Prague with my wife.
“Mother’s failing,” my youngest sister said, “you better come home right away.”
In a daze, I returned to Chicago through seven time zones and a dizzying assortment of airports. On arrival, I called.
“I’m sorry,” my sister answered. “She died four hours ago.”
“As soon as I can reach the apartment by taxi, I’ll be there.” I needed to say goodbye to her body, even if she no longer inhabited it.
I spent half an hour, maybe longer, alone with her. She lay on the bed, her mouth partly ajar as if she had one last uncompleted thought; her right hand was open to clasp some comfort just beyond reach. Struggling within my tears and grief, I never conceived an answer to what her question might have been, and was unable to provide what she had need of there at the end. “Goodbye,” is all I said.
Too soon, the agency, contracted to collect her remains for medical research, appeared. She would have approved the use of her body, tired and aged as it was, as a lever to peer deeper into the secrets of life and death.
When I was six, I saw my mother cry for the first time, long and hard in pained frustration.
My parents, young and unfettered after their return from France where my father worked in the Marshall Plan, lived with their three children at the summer home of my father’s parents on North Lake, which was the name both of the lake and a local town 50 miles west of Milwaukee. On the main level, the floor was tiled with high ceilings and remained cool in all but the hottest summer days. There was a large family dining area and a living room declaiming Shakespeare’s adage on aging in bold Gothic lettering above the bay window seat: “With Mirth and Laughter Let Old Wrinkles Come.”
My mother was generally disinterested in cats, perhaps because of a loyalty her attachment to dogs required. A preference so deep and unexplored, although I am the same way today, I cannot explain it with any certainty. There were interludes during my life when I had cats as pets, but I accept my mother’s truth—dogs are wonderful companions you must love and will love you unstintingly in return, while cats are merely domesticated animals.
For some reason, perhaps compassion for the outcast, my mother rescued three abandoned kittens, mewing in desperation for protection and food. This memory of cats would have faded and been forgotten as an anomaly in my mother’s canine world, except for Omie, my grandmother.
“No cats at North Lake,” Omie had declared. She was formidable, seated in the parlor of her large brick Milwaukee home, speaking German to other primly dressed matrons on high-backed chairs arranged in a stiff circle. For her, time leached any flexibility from her calcified dictates. Rigidity in their maintenance, she seemed to think, was the only reasonable course to follow.
On a sleepy dog day of August, Omie arrived in her big black car. My mother just thirty, defensive about the dependence of her position but stubborn, met her mother-in-law outside the kitchen with its screened and enclosed porch. Large limestone slabs covered the sunlit space in front of the kitchen door, and the same stone created a raised herb garden on the opposite side. If I close my eyes and concentrate, I still taste the chives casually plucked and chewed on my way in or out of the house. And I see myself, no taller than my mother’s waist, standing beside her.
Omie greeted us. Then, noting the kittens in their box, she grimaced. “What are you doing with kittens here, Margie?” She pursed her lips. “You know the rules; get rid of them immediately.”
My mother was stunned. Maybe more was said, but I think not. Suddenly bursting into tears, she bolted like a young mare, tall and long-legged. Racing across the asphalt drive toward an upper garden through a trellised arch, she circled two massive conical white firs, past the garden full of jolly flowers, into the shade of the pines where she slowed in the quiet of the needled path.
As fast as my short legs could carry me, I followed, catching her at the garden and trotting alongside until she slowed. I stood there as her storming tears dried and her sobbing slowed. When her breathing quieted, mother assured me, “It’s okay. I was upset but I’m fine now.”
I ached for some comfort from her in a way I did not understand and could not then say. My distress was not for the kittens and their fate but at this exposure to a world where my mother’s tears fell like thwarted rain.
In the summer of 1957, I was ten. Mother arranged a three-month trip for her four children while Father, like a man of his time and class, stayed in Washington, D.C., working. I’m sure Father dropped any objections to her summer plans he may have had in the face of her determination. We sailed from New York to Le Havre, France, and bought a Volkswagen in which the five of us with our luggage traveled across France, Germany, and Austria. Many thought my mother was crazy for embarking on such a trip alone with her children.
I thought she was as close to perfect as a mother could be. All our adventures she transmuted to gold in her retelling. Five of us huddled on one double bed for the night in a derelict hotel in Regensburg, aptly named Wolfish, with fly spots on the wall and a long dirty corridor to the bathroom lit by the same naked light bulb illuminating our room. At 20 cents a night per person, it was overpriced.
The family album contains photos of the “boys,” my older brother and I, on various adventures with our mother while our two younger sisters remained with family friends. For four days, we hiked from hut to hut in the mountains of the Böhmerwald in Bavaria, Chris and I in our lederhosen, which had the advantage of requiring very little changing. In a blizzard, we climbed the Zugspitz at 9,789 feet two days before my brother’s fourteenth birthday. We made the ascent in tennis shoes and wool sweater-coats. “Wie verrückt,” the German mountaineers muttered about our equipment as they passed, in a mixture of awe and derision.
During one side trip by train, mother shepherded her flock from one train to the other— but not quick enough. The train we struggled to board whistled and huffed in preparation to depart, but half the children and half the luggage were in the departing train and the rest remained waiting for transfer.
My mother asked the conductor in German, which he seemed to understand but ignored, to wait one moment. She was polite, even humble, because that was how she was until her volcano of suppressed anger exploded over a perceived wrong.
“Schedules must be kept,” the conductor was so foolhardy to say as he waved the train to take off.
Without hesitation, my mother leapt onto the track in front of the train and unleashed a stream of invective in what sounded to me like German. Despite a penchant for order, the rail bureaucracy of post war-Germany blanched, stopped in its inexorability. The conductor, wholly cowed and perhaps even shamed, not only halted the train but personally carried the balance of our luggage from one train to another. A preteen, I might have reacted in many different ways to Mother’s public display of such unseemly rage, but all I remember is awe at her fierce and unyielding spirit.
In the final confused years, I sometimes sat beside my mother on her black chintz love seat, enlivened with garlands of flowers, but shabby from decades of use and Mac’s tendency, when sleeping on it, to leak. Our grey heads almost touching, we leaned together over the journal of that trip to study its written entries, paintings, and mementos, yellowed with the passage of time.
When I was 18, I worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Mississippi, assisting in voter registration and in running a Freedom School during the summer of 1965. It was a heady and frightening time. Looking back, I’m sure if my mother had not been bracketed by adult responsibilities and two teenage girls still at home, she would have gone south to participate in the Civil Rights struggle. It was certainly because of her ideals that such a choice was a natural evolution for me.
At least ten years afterwards, she told me what she’d done during the time I was in Mississippi. She mentioned it in an off-hand, almost self-deprecating, comment. She’d located a pawn shop, probably the first one she saw and certainly the first she’d entered, and sold all the jewelry given to her by her mother. Taking the proceeds, she marched to the SNCC headquarters in the District of Columbia. Marion Barry, later mayor of Washington, D.C., and other leaders of the organization were milling around with various volunteers.
She framed her story with humor. “Into this assembly burst a well-coifed and dressed representative of the white middle class.” Recalling her feelings at that time, she said, “Almost frozen with awkwardness, I took the dirty bills from my wallet and laid them on the table. Then, while they were still recovering, I slipped out.”
I recall this story with a bitter, proud love. I see a young dark-haired mother, standing five-feet-ten inches, far outside the comfort of her middle class existence and without the slightest knowledge of a world where pawn shops are a fixture, entering and placing her jewelry on the counter to accept whatever she was given. Then, she carried the money, burning like an ache, to the SNCC office—for justice and her son.
We spent most summers of our childhood at North Lake, swimming and daydreaming in the sun or rambling the forty acres. The big, cool house, the fields of sumac we were always hacking into temporary submission, the mysterious old pump building we dubbed the “giant’s house,” quiet paths through pine woods, streams with big bull frogs, and the lake in which we swam and rowed and sailed. North Lake was all this and more.
As an adult, my visits to this paradise of my youth became rarer. One of my last visits before the house on North Lake was sold took place during the summer I turned 24.
My brother and I took long pulls of Pabst Blue ribbon as we waited in the comfort of the living room for a visit from two of his college friends. A roaring fire held back the chill of a Midwestern summer downpour.
“We’ve just seen a mad woman slide off your driveway into the brush calling out for someone,” his friends said breathlessly as they arrived. My brother and I had no doubt who that mad woman was. Within minutes, Mother reeled in carrying 60-pounds of incontinent and largely immobile spaniel. She’d carried Kiki outside to pee. As he struggled to lift his leg millimeters from the ground, he promptly fell over the side of the road into a ditch. Mother, without thought, threw herself deep into the mud to rescue her dog.
Clothed in an old tan raincoat thrown over shorts and a khaki shirt from my father’s military service, Mother entered, her regal bearing intact, carrying Kiki in her arms. Mud streaked her face and her eyes were wild with a mother’s passionate defense of her young. In her universe, dogs and children were on a complementary plane.
When I started law school, I was 30. My youngest child was born on my first day. Tired after three years of working almost full-time while charting my way through the arcane thickets of the law, I needed a break upon graduation.
Mother volunteered to watch all three of my children for a month so my wife Francie and I could travel to Europe. In typical excess, she also took on a granddaughter, grandnephew, and two stepchildren of my brother. It was a wonderful gesture, although the family laughed in universal belief that she would have found it easier, and more enjoyable, to manage two dogsleds of huskies, facing different directions as they pulled against their traces, than seven children.
To add to the chaos, Mother had three geese that would march in single file across the lawn to the pond, smug in their assurance of predominance. In fact, they were a vicious, sneaking trio that would rush up to peck the rear of unsuspecting prey.
Erika, my youngest, was three and no taller than the geese.
Realizing a critical balance of deterrence was missing, Mother issued Erika a stave larger than herself. “Get away, goose,” Erika would cry as she charged off one hillock across the dangerous flat middle ground, whirling her stick before her.
It was the natural solution of a woman who believed that the animal world included man, all equally entitled to space and freedom. If there was an imbalance, a little tweak to achieve equality was permissible…but no more.
At the end of the summer when my wife and I returned from our journey, Mother cooked a big goose dinner. Although animals were equal, there was no sentimentality on her part—a harsh universe holds us all. Erika hardly looked up from her meal except to surface once to pronounce, “I love goose.” She waved a drumstick like an ancient general lowering his baton to signal a charge into enemy trenches.
Mother looked at her granddaughter with pride.
A parent should never have to face outliving a child, but life is a river which floods and ebbs to its own rhythm. At 43, while kayaking with friends on a wild stretch of the North River, a tributary of the Shenandoah, my brother was swept into a side channel and pinned in his boat between two trees. Chris fought 50 minutes. Rescue teams could not free him and he finally succumbed to hypothermia.
This was a blow Mother never forgave the universe. Her anger lingered for years, often with different foci, but directed for a long period at my father, who she blamed—not for Chris’ death but for restricting him in life. “You never allowed him to become who he wanted to be,” she cried. It wasn’t a rational rage, but her first child was taken from her and she would live a long time with the dreams of what he might have been.
Ultimately, it was dementia that freed her from this pain.
For a week in the spring of 2006, I visited my mother in her apartment in Chicago, where she lived with a dedicated and loving full-time caretaker. This was two years before her death. Although her dementia was quite advanced, I was still able to squeeze gentle moments from our time together. But it had become harder and harder.
Mother and I walked to the corner coffee shop with my arm through hers, out of love but also fear that she would fall. Once there, I found her a seat in a corner at a distance from businessmen gulping coffee between errands and young mothers speaking with friends as they attempted to complete a full sentence between cries and demands of their combined jumble of children. I ordered us both lattes.
Mother became absorbed in the slow methodical consumption of her coffee. And I grabbed the crossword section from a deserted Chicago Tribune.
“Mother, what’s a six letter word for walk casually,” I asked. She looked at me blankly, but after several moments and my stammering something that sounded like the start of str…ooo…ll, she smiled with a glimmer of recognition. “Stroll,” she said. More and more, however, she was unable and disinterested in parsing out meaning. At one point, I feared she had caught me out as I completed the crosswords, pretending she had given me clues to the answers. Loving someone descending into dementia requires varied stratagems. Increasingly, I sat with her silently, wondering what meaning my quiet company held for her.
Returning from the coffee shop to her apartment, I decided to read her a story. Sitting on her floral-covered love seat, I put my arm around her because she was cold. Like a young couple, we sat there as I read the “One-Eyed Dunlin,” a very short story from a book that had moved me, Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds by Lyanda Haupt, a Seattle naturalist.
A flock of Dunlins, brown and unassuming shorebirds, foraged on a spit of land thrust into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Haupt spotted a Dunlin missing one eye and part of its face, the likely result of a falcon attack. This Dunlin moved in separate, more hesitating, steps apart from the rest of the flock. Although the author’s training dictated that she remain detached, she can’t help but see the Dunlin as an individual and notes its inability “to fully join her flock.” It is “reduced to the basics, and ignores the rest out of simple necessity.” The poor, maimed Dunlin’s fate is clear. If not seized a second mortal time by a predator, it will starve, facing increased confusion and, at last, nothingness.
When I finish the story, we are quiet.
“Poor Dunlin,” says my mother, finally breaking the silence.
And, I think, yes, poor bird doomed for a time to live on, diminished and increasingly alone.
My mother had firm ideas about life and death. Over the last decade of her life, I was presented with at least three Living Directives, authorizing, really mandating, me to ensure she would be allowed to die with dignity if all that remained to her was life in a reduced capacity.
Unwilling to rely on legal documents and the actions of others, she also squirreled away a stash of medicine sufficient, she felt, to free herself from a stage of life dwindling beyond her tolerance. One aspect of Alzheimer’s brutality, however, is that when the bleak winter of her life descended and enveloped her, she no longer remembered where her medicine was or of her determination to maintain control in the face of death.
The river of life wound in its own course through time until the morning I sat beside her at breakfast, devastated by her anger. I said nothing, neither apology for my action in stifling Mac’s free spirit nor justification of the need to set limits on what a dog should do.
In the silence, I recalled the years we had shared. I still envisioned the young mother running like a startled mare toward the pines. I felt pain for her, no longer the vibrant woman she had been, and sorrow for myself that I could no longer bring her the comfort even of memories.
She contemplated breakfast without indication of the snarled thoughts wrestling in her mind. Slowly, her sunspot-speckled hand, skin thinned by age, reached out and rested, almost weightlessly, on top of mine. She never said anything, nor did I.
For nine more months, she gradually slipped from life’s tenacious grip. But that last gentle touch, lingering in my thoughts, remained our goodbye.
Michael Royce writes short stories and creative nonfiction, which have appeared in the Prick of the Spindle, Linnet's Wing, Midwest Literary Review, and Fringe Magazine. His "Mississippi Freedom Summer in Eight Vignettes" was chosen as one of seven nonfiction pieces for inclusion in the 2011 Best of the Net Anthology.
Q: Can you tell us about the motivation behind this piece?
A: It has been three years since my mother’s death of Alzheimer’s. I felt ready to honor the wholeness of this wonderful woman, complex and eccentric, who is “my mother for all time.”
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: I consistently get my best writing advice from my writer’s group—the Writer’s Grind. I have to follow whatever they suggest because they are almost always right … and certainly smarter than me.
Q: Please share with our readers a little about your own writing process.
A: When I’m ready to write, the initial draft of stories usually comes quickly. This is followed by extensive editing and revising, which I enjoy and find as creative as producing a new piece. Often the best revisions come to me in snippets—in the shower, as I fall to sleep, or as I attend to other things.
Q: How do you organize your home library? Tall to small? Alphabetically? Or, have you converted totally to e-reader?
A: I’m embarrassed to admit that I organize my home library alphabetically by author. I mean, really, how neurotic. I’m mostly still a tactile, physical book reader. My library’s system of organization almost immediately breaks down as I shelve the latest book I’ve read alongside the hundreds of other books I’ve hoarded over the years.