Sometimes when she hugs me, when I can’t see her oxygen cord, the way she’s let her hair go dark, I picture her the way she used to be, her hair a yellow confection. But she didn’t hug me much then. Now she lingers, trying to put a lifetime of goodness in each hug, rubbing love into my cheek with each kiss instead of color and femininity. When we break I have to adjust my eyes. She is not blonde and laughing with a cigarette in one hand. She no longer has the energy to make wild gestures. She has lost the gift to bring men to their knees.
“You look good,” she says. Lately, every time I come over she compliments me on my “look” although I’ve explained that I have the same “look” I’ve had for thirty years: jeans, t-shirt or sweatshirt, tennis shoes, short hair, and she never liked it when I was younger.
“You didn’t like how I used to dress.”
“It suits you,” she says, lowering herself onto a chair at the kitchen table inherited from my grandmother, who got it from an aunt. She’ll want me to have it. I don’t know where I’ll put it.
“You didn’t used to think so. You used to want me to dress like you.”
She shakes her head. “No. You’ve always looked good. I just wanted you to…” she leaves the sentence unfinished.
“Anyway, you’re lucky you never started wearing make-up,” she says, one hand holding the other, but not in a religious way. She probably doesn’t even know she’s doing it, but I notice, her left hand a poor substitute for a cigarette, what she wishes she were holding although now she says how much they smell, how she really hates cigarette smoke, although she’s admitted to a puff here and there, and puff doesn’t mean cigarette like it used to, but just one inhalation, all she can manage.
“You’re lucky you were never vain,” she continues. Though, of course, I was. I just knew I could never compete with her.
“You were, are beautiful,” she says.
I raise an eyebrow.
“You didn’t need make-up. No matter what I said.”
“I do now,” I answer.
“No.” She exhales deeply.
“I think you’ve just gotten used to me.”
We’re sitting at her kitchen table, opposite each other. I’ve noticed she no longer faces the window when she sits, instead taking up daily residence facing the old china cabinet she’s had my whole life. The change in position bothers me, the way she no longer seems interested in the outside world, or maybe thinks she’s no longer a part of it or something. In what is now her seat, I see a muddled reflection of my own face, the permanent dark hollows under my eyes.
“No, you don’t need make-up. You never did. You have good skin. I’ve broken all the blood vessels in my face, coughing, and I don’t have the energy to make myself up.”
“You don’t need to,” I say. “You look good. Your color’s good.”
“This make-up is three days old!”
“Doesn’t matter. You look healthy.” Usually, she puts on too much. Three days wear must be just the right amount.
“The nurse said your medication makes your skin thinner. I was there. I heard her. You’ll get better and you’ll look better.”
“I’ll never look like I used to.”
“Neither will I.” It’s been over three years since my stroke. I’ve only recently realized the reason my doctors never get after me to lose weight is because they don’t expect me to live very long, figure I should just enjoy my life.
I ask if she’s talked to my brother Kevin, and she relates their latest conversation which, like most of their conversations, at least as she relates them to me, seem to center on his new interest in church and cooking, things I’ve never had an interest in. Suddenly, she reaches across the table and grabs my arm fast and firm like some monster in a horror movie.
“I love you, Tiffany,” she says, batting her lashes at me. She says this every visit, although she doesn’t usually grab my arm.
“I love you, Mom.”
She gives me her “no shit” look.
“Otherwise I wouldn’t come over. I’d go to the movies.”
This satisfies her. She has an almost frightening belief in my truthfulness, and I worry over the day I’ll have to lie.
“Do you really think I’ll get better?” she asks. She sounds like a child every time she asks. She’s admitted it, asked if it drove me crazy to reassure her, but it doesn’t, and I’ve promised to do her make-up when she gets to where she can’t, although, honestly, I have no idea how and suggested my flamboyant step-brother might be a better choice, but she said she only really trusts me.
“You’ve always done so much for me. Even years ago. I know I never said it, but in some ways you were more like the parent.”
“You’re making me feel old,” I say. “And besides, one of us had to be. You were busy breaking hearts. Remember all those roses men used to send you?”
A glint comes in her eyes. She giggles into her chest, and I think about the way she used to throw back her head and laugh, about the way we used to have our conversations across the table in the back room of the beauty shop, only she couldn’t stay still, kept jumping up to put towels in the dryer, answer the phone, turn the radio up and start jigging around when something she liked was playing, how she’d grab my hand like my daughter does now and try to coax me up.
Tiff Holland is the author of the novella-in-flash “Betty Superman.” Her poetry and prose have appeared in The Mississippi Review, Frigg, Karamu and many other journals.