Calm as you please, my mother set an incisor and a canine on the Formica table top. The teeth were pearly white, perfectly shaped and free of decay. She pointed to the incisor.
“This came out at the doctor’s office while you were on the phone.” She pointed to the canine. “This came out last week. I started keeping them.”
I’ve never seen teeth pulled completely from a jaw, not even in Anatomy & Physiology class. I stared for a long moment trying to comprehend what lay before me on the table. I had just finished eating my first plate from the Chinese buffet. I felt grateful for small mercies.
I did as she asked. She hooked her forefinger into the corner of her mouth and pulled it into a rictus. She pointed at the exposed jaw. I could see the gaping sockets in the bone. Half the teeth on the bottom of her mouth were just—gone. So was the gum.
“You can see everything. How many more teeth do I have to lose? I can’t chew my food.”
My proud and beautiful mother looked at me as if I knew the answer. Meanwhile, I felt as if I hung by one foot over a chasm. I couldn’t see the bottom and all that kept me from falling was my hope, which slowly frayed with each incident.
To look away would be to admit defeat. To look away would deny her humanity. She was suffering and I couldn’t help her. I’d never looked into the depths of such misery before. Not even my own pain could match what rested on the table between us.
She gathered up the teeth and put them in her wallet. She seemed satisfied, as if she’d made her point. I wondered if my eyes reflected the horror of this moment. I wanted to cry, but I held my face still. Crying would make her uncomfortable. This moment wasn’t about me.
I went to the buffet table and grabbed a second plate. I stared at a tray of vegetable lo mein, something I would never eat, and prayed she didn’t watch me. I silently came apart inside. After a long moment of self-pity, I added rice noodles and peanut butter chicken to my plate.
I would enjoy her favorite foods for her. I would break the fortune cookie with her. I would eat the cookie for her because it was too hard for her to chew. I would ingest the cookie that had patiently housed the fortune. This, I knew, would make her happy.
If anything, she seems happiest now when I visit. This hadn’t been true before she realized she was dying. I don’t know how her mind works. Maybe she was happy when I visited before, but her proud nature wouldn’t permit her to show how much she enjoyed my company.
She has never been an affectionate or particularly interested mother. Life had dealt blows to her that I could only imagine. She had closed herself up in an ivory tower of contempt and dismissal that I thought I would never be able to climb. I’ve often wondered why I continued my efforts.
She was my mother. Before my childhood went to hell, she was my everything. I don’t think I ever let that memory go or I would have stopped trying to get through. She was angry at me for some imagined wrong, but then in her mind, everyone has betrayed her. Everyone.
There was a cat my mother owned named Blaze, a beautiful, feral creature that never allowed anyone to touch her, much less see her. She was a blur of tuxedo socks and silence. You could feel her yellow-green eyes watch you from some unknown hiding place. Several months before Blaze died, she discovered the joy of human touch. After that, she was insatiable.
She would swipe at the legs of any passing human just to feel the warm glide of a palm along her back and the indescribable pleasure of fingernails scratching behind her ears. For years, she had denied herself this heaven because of her fear of getting hurt. Perhaps she died happy, but how much longer would the cat have lived if she had sought loving company sooner?
My mother reminded me of Blaze. I didn’t know how much longer she’d be able to enjoy my company, but now she has it at least once a week. There have been—difficult—complicated discussions about our shared pasts. They have healed us both and yet have opened fresh wounds as she swipes at me in passing, demanding my attention. She forces me to look at her, to see her as something other than my mother, something other than a dying woman.
Her soul burns brightly inside the body that has betrayed her. She has learned that life is pain and that everything, and everyone, betrays eventually. Nothing can be trusted to meet expectations, but that’s not what counts anymore.
What counts is the warm glide of a palm against her back as she is hugged and hugs in return. I am still shocked when she reaches for me, when she asks for that life-affirming touch. What makes life worthwhile is the pleasure of shared laughter and sadness tickling her ears as old wounds are healed. I am still amazed by her desire to probe past misunderstandings when before we would go months without speaking at all. My mother astounds me.
When I returned to the table, I knew that her teeth still sat in her wallet. I may find them, a handful perhaps, still in the wallet after she dies. They will be a stark reminder of what has been lost and cannot be reclaimed.
Right now, all I want to show her is that though time is limited, love is limitless. When I get home, I can cry, but right now, no. There will be no tears to betray her.