December 25th 11:00am
My mother asked me to kill my father on Christmas. I remember it was Christmas, because it isn’t the kind of thing you forget. And if I have to pick a beginning for this tragedy that’s as good a place as any. Aristotle was wrong, you know. Tragedies don’t have structure. They don’t line up neatly into three acts. Tragedy prefers the blindside. You’re sitting at the intersection waiting for the light, when Bam! It comes out of nowhere.
I’d just checked on my teenage son, Jax. He’d sequestered himself in the guest room far from his cousins which, given the finger-breaking incident, was probably the safest choice. Then, I stopped to look in on my sister’s kids in the living room. She’d asked me to keep an eye on the younger ones while she hunted the Valley for cranberry sauce.
Mom had forgotten this holiday staple and was frantically scolding herself in the kitchen because cranberry sauce, whole cranberry sauce, was my father’s favorite part of Christmas dinner. For fifty years she’d been getting up at the crack of dawn to make turkey, stuffing, brussels sprouts and this weird marshmallow ambrosia, yet my father’s favorite dish came out of a can.
I’d only meant to glance at Colleen’s kids then go help Mom, but something about the scene transfixed me. The floor was littered with bows and wrapping paper, like Santa’s workshop had exploded and these five kids were the only survivors. It was like looking back through a window in time.
Colleen, our older brother Adam, and I had celebrated every Christmas of our youth in that living room. Our parents always made it magical. You’d get something you’d forgotten you wanted or didn’t even know you wanted. You went to sleep on Christmas Eve with this feeling, this luscious anticipation of magic, certain that something totally unexpected was not only possible, but was about to happen. When was the last time I felt like that? Like life could surprise you and it would be good.
A screech shattered the moment.
“Raaaannce!!” Luca howled.
Lance, Colleen’s eight-year-old, had grabbed his little brother’s Thomas the Train and was holding it high above his head, laughing while Luca stood on his tippy-toes desperately reaching for the toy, his bright orange-red hair bursting in all directions as if it were screaming too.
“Lance!” I snapped.
Lance ignored me and kept taunting his brother. Mostly my sister’s kids are saints. She has nine, though only five are still young enough to be at home. They say please and thank you without being reminded, do dishes without being asked. But not Lance. He’s a dick which, when I’m not actually dealing with him, is relatively satisfying. A chink, a lot too late, in Colleen’s otherwise halcyon existence.
“Lance!” I repeated. He turned and stared, his green eyes burning. He wasn’t scared of me. We both knew it. I could trek back downstairs to get his dad, but Liam was no match for this little nightmare either.
The only real leverage anyone had was how much trouble he’d be in with Colleen if she found out. He was sizing up how likely it was that I’d call on my sister to do the dirty work. He scowled, then handed the train back to his brother.
“And tidy up before your mom gets back,” I added before heading out of the room.
The kitchen was sweltering, over-heated from the efforts of the ancient oven to produce yet another family feast. In classic Los Angeles fashion, it was eighty degrees outside, and the kitchen was at least ten degrees hotter than that. I wished I was the one off hunting cranberries. Colleen had volunteered the second Mom mentioned the cranberry sauce, before I even registered it as an opportunity to escape. The house felt more cramped and uneasy every year, maybe because all the kids were getting bigger, or maybe because of Dad and his dementia.
Mom grabbed the oven door and gave it a tug. Her short, grey hair fluttered in the gust of heat that escaped. She slid the turkey out and, with her fingertips, carefully flicked at the edge of the aluminum foil tent covering the bird. Steam rose up from the pan as she got it loose.
“I can’t take this anymore,” she said without looking at me. It was as though she was scolding the bird for its lack of appreciation. She retrieved a ladle from the counter and began basting the turkey with its juices. I glanced around. Every surface was cluttered with bowls and utensils. She’d probably been up since five, preparing this enormous Christmas meal for a bunch of people, including me, who really didn’t recognize how much work it was.
“Maybe we should do a potluck next year,” I said teasingly, knowing she’d never go for it. Her disdain for potlucks was legendary. Working yourself to death in the kitchen—particularly on holidays—fulfilled some recondite, motherly obligation handed down from previous generations.
“Bernadette Louise Rogers,” she snapped, letting the oven door slam shut. “You have Christmas dinner and a Christmas tree on Christmas.”
Her sharp tone surprised me. I only got my full name when in trouble, which was infinitely better than Bernie, the nickname I’d been trying to kill for more than forty years.
“I was just kidding,” I said. My nonchalant attitude toward traditional holidays, even before Shayne, always irked her—I’ve never had a tree in my adult life—but her emotion seemed disproportionate to my attempt at humor. “Why do you think I come here every year? I love that everything is exactly the same as it was when I was a kid.”
“I’m sorry,” she said but she didn’t sound any less upset. “It’s just…” She stopped, then stood there, her cheeks flushed and shiny with sweat. She seemed to be focusing on something internal, gathering up all her emotions and stuffing them away in some sacred hiding spot like she had my whole life. She picked up a stack of plates from the counter and handed them to me. “Go set the table.”
Confused, I went through the other door of the kitchen to the dining area. She was probably just tired, that heat could give anyone a crispy edge. I laid out the plates, the same everyday dishes we’d had as kids. When I came across the chipped one, I deliberately set it in my sister’s spot, then felt guilty and went back and switched it to mine. Mom was working on the brussels sprouts when I returned, slicing an X into the bottom of each one then tossing it into the pot of boiling water on the stove.
“You have to do something,” she said, still not looking at me.
“Do you want me to make the stuffing?”
She turned. Her face tightened, and the section of skin between her eyebrows gathered together in furrows of disappointment.
“That’s not what I mean,” she said.
I was failing her, not deciphering subtle expressions the way I was supposed to, the way I’d been able to when I was little and well-versed in this language of looks, where the slight shift of an eyebrow meant she’d seen through a fib and was about to deliver a spanking. I replayed the holiday in my mind trying to find the Rosetta stone that would help me translate the conversation we were having into usable information. I couldn’t.
“Mom, I give up. I don’t know what we’re talking about.”
“If he knew this was going to happen to him, he would have gone out in the backyard and blown his brains out.”
Aha! We were talking about Dad. I nodded. Whenever the subject of Alzheimer’s or terminal cancer came up he’d say those exact words: “Don’t let me get like that. I’d rather go out in the backyard and blow my brains out.” It was stupid really. Something people say but don’t think will ever happen. He didn’t own a gun. I’m not even sure how well he could use one. He’d been a radio operator in the Navy in a time of peace. I’d never seen him touch a firearm.
“What can I do?” I asked. We’d tried having someone stay with him at the house, so Mom could get out once or twice a week. A home health agency sent a sweet, middle-aged Hispanic woman named Magda. Mom was only a few blocks away driving with Colleen’s daughter Laura to the mall when a terrified Magda called. Dad had accused her of stealing and locked her outside. The next time they sent a tall, muscular guy named Walter. Dad punched him. The agency told us not to call again.
“Do you want to try an adult daycare place?” I said, when she didn’t respond.
“They won’t take him because he’s aggressive.” The word caught in her throat. My dad would never have been described as aggressive by anyone before the dementia.
“A nursing home?” I said, even though I knew better.
“No, no, no,” she said, getting a little louder with each word.
“Then, what? What am I supposed to do?”
“You could help him go peacefully,” she said, her voice a hopeful whisper. “You know how to do that.”
I stood there waiting for her to say more, to explain, because she couldn’t possibly be saying what I thought she was. But there was no more.
“Mom? What do you mean help him go peacefully? It sounds like you’re asking me to kill Dad.”
She stared, her expression hovering somewhere between blank and quizzical, like I’d come out of nowhere with this idea and she was trying to figure out what I meant instead of me trying to figure out what she meant. But then she gave an almost imperceptible nod, as if by not saying the words she was doing something less than committing, was somehow retaining plausible deniability.
“I thought things were okay,” I said, even though things hadn’t been okay in years. But I thought they were as okay as they could be under the circumstances. She turned back to her salad, opened a jar of disconcertingly bright red cherry halves and laid them in the shape of a flower on the white bed of marshmallows, something I’d seen her do so many times it was reassuring.
“You have to tell me what’s going on,” I said. “I can’t do anything if I don’t know what’s going on.”
“He’s getting up in the middle of the night and going for walks. He keeps asking me to take him home. When I tell him this is home, he gets angry. When we were driving last week, he told me to take him home then grabbed the wheel. I had to scream at him to get him to let go. I thought we were going to have an accident.”
“Grandma?” The voice came from the doorway behind me. I turned to see my nephew Logan who, although the same age as Jax, seemed more child-like, innocent. “I can’t find Grandpa.”
My mother took a deep breath, her shoulders and chest rising as her rib cage filled with air. Her small frame, thin limbs, and tiny hands had always made her seem delicate, bird-like, which only became more pronounced with her shrinking. When I was sixteen, she and I were the same height. Now at forty-seven and seventy-two, I was still five-three but she was barely five feet. The big inhale made her seem like a diminutive creature puffing itself up to look bigger so as not to get consumed by a predator. She let the breath out in a huge sigh.
“We’re not done, okay?” I said to my mother, then turned to Logan. “You check the TV room. I’ll check the workshop.”
He nodded and left. We all knew the drill.