When Len Holder’s mother came back to life, he wasn’t completely surprised. She’d been appearing in his dreams lately: emerging from the car with an armload of groceries; sprinkling herbs into a pot of homemade chili; loading the dishwasher, sorting laundry, cleaning the oven. Activities impossible in her last, miserable years. But the dreams were so vivid that each time he awoke, Len had to reorient himself. He was alone in the house and had been since her death.
This particular morning Len awoke not from a dream, but to singing:
“Two little clouds, one summer’s day,
Went flying through the sky;
They went so fast they bumped their heads,
And both began to cry.”
Rising from his bed, Len followed the voice to the living room. She stood at the window, watching leaves float down from the red oak tree.
She turned to him, her eyes glazed. “Hi, Len.”
“Mom … what … where did you come from?”
“Is this my house?” Slowly, she wandered about the room, her fingers brushing the pretentious furnishings. The Ethan Allen sofa. The Stickley lamp table. The swan figurines above the fireplace.
She stopped to admire an Edward Hicks print of Noah’s ark. “How beautiful!” she said. “Is this mine, too?”
Len approached cautiously. If she was a ghost, she didn’t look like one. Instead of her burial clothes, she wore a Dallas Cowboys warmup suit.
“Mom,” he asked, “how on Earth did you get here?”
She didn’t seem to hear. Her attention returned to the leaf festival in the backyard. “Is it fall again already? I love this time of year.”
This didn’t feel like a dream. It had texture, and the haziness of dreams was absent.
Len reached out to touch her shoulder. It was solid. His hand slid down to her wrist. The pulse was steady, her skin was warm.
She drifted past him and sank into the leather recliner. “Do you have any key lime pie?”
“Seems like ages since I’ve had anything to eat.”
“I … uh … I’ll see what’s in the fridge.” Numbly, he headed for the kitchen. Her voice followed him, humming the lullaby.
The pie request was a familiar one. In the final weeks before her death, sweets were all she would eat. The hospice nurse said not to worry. “Let her have whatever she wants. It won’t make any difference.”
Drawing a dessert plate from the cupboard, Len noticed his mother’s medical diary lying on the counter. He thought he’d thrown it away seven years ago. Now, it lay open to the last page:
6:30 p.m. BP 81/41, pulse 101. Still unconscious, but some sort of distress. Chest heaving. Groping gestures for several minutes.
8:30 p.m. BP 79/41, pulse 111. Erratic breathing, gradually stabilized.
10:30 p.m. BP 102/44, pulse 125. More groping. Breathing shallow but regular.
12:30 a.m. BP 90/42, pulse 133. Frantic gasping and heaving. Hospice summoned.
The nurse had arrived within minutes, giving Mom a light dose of morphine to calm her. “I wouldn’t bother recording her vitals anymore,” she advised sympathetically. “It should be just a matter of hours.”
Meticulous to the end, Len made a final entry that afternoon.
4:36 p.m. No BP. No pulse. No respiration.
The diary said nothing about the sorrow frozen on his mother’s face. Nothing about Len and Olivia sobbing in each other’s arms. Nothing about the terrible emptiness of her bedroom after the attendants wheeled her away.
Dutifully, Len had phoned Joey, Cindy, and their children. Those who lived in town came over to sit with him. The conversation was awkward. None of them reminisced about Mom or shed a tear.
The sun peeked through the kitchen window, reminding Len that this was a work day. Scrolling through his phone menu, he hesitated. What excuse could he give?
His call went to voicemail. “Miranda, it’s me,” he said. “Something – uh – unexpected has come up. I’ll be at home today. Call if you need me.”
Len checked his calendar for November 30, 2020. No appointments, although he did have a batch of open claims on his desk.
He placed a slice of pie on the plate and carried it to the living room. Mom sat in her chair, looking around. “Len, is this my house?”
“Why can’t I remember?”
“What do you remember, Mom? Where did you come from just now?”
She stared blankly at the pie, as though wondering what to do with it. “What time does Wheel of Fortune come on?”
“Late this afternoon, I think.” Len hadn’t watched a game show since her death and hoped he’d never have to again.
A voice murmured from down the hall. Probably the clock radio. He ignored it and perched on the sofa’s armrest. “This is so good!” she exclaimed, tasting the pie. “Did you make it?”
“No, it’s one of those frozen things.” In her last few weeks, Mom was too blind and weak to feed herself. They had to spoon-feed her like a baby. Sometimes she would sip a nutrient drink, but Len could see that it gave her no pleasure.
Fleetingly, he wondered where the pie had come from. He didn’t remember buying it.
A smile crossed her face. “Len, do you remember that song about the two little clouds? My mother used to sing that to me when I got scared of the thunder.”
“You sang it to me, too,” he said. “When I was little.”
“Did I?” She took another bite.
The radio voice grew louder. It sounded like Joey’s morning talk show. Len followed it into his brother’s old bedroom.
“Aaron Rodgers of the Packers is everybody’s pick for most valuable player,” said the voice. “But quarterbacks win that award all the time. Who would you choose? Think about it, and we’ll start taking calls right after this message.”
There was no radio in Joey’s room. Nothing but his bedframe and mattress, stripped and left bare since his wedding day in 1962.
Len checked the closet and peeked under the bed. The voice seemed to be coming from everywhere and nowhere.
This had to be a dream. He went to the bathroom to splash his face with cold water. It made no difference. Joey’s voice droned on. From the living room, Mom’s hummed away.
Len had just turned sixty-two when she suffered her first hip fracture. The rehab period was upsetting to both of them. Some of the nursing home residents seemed little more than house plants, cleaned, fed, and watered by underpaid attendants. At supper each evening, Len and his mother watched one of them wheel a shrunken old lady out of her room and park her at a nearby table. Someone brought a tray of food and tried to coax her into eating. The patient stared vacantly into space, ignoring the meal until the aide rolled her back to the room. As far as Len knew, she never ate anything, never spoke, never had any visitors.
The bleak atmosphere brought out the worst in Mom. “They won’t leave me alone when I’m sleeping,” she complained, “but when I press the call button, they ignore me. The food in this place is terrible. The TV control doesn’t work right. These gowns make my skin itch. And this bed’s too soft, it makes my back ache.” She griped the entire six weeks.
At the end of rehab, Doctor Kirby recommended full-time companionship. “Once they’ve fallen, they’re likely to do it again.”
“Please don’t leave me in this place!” she begged tearfully. So Len took her home, assuming responsibility because no one else would. Mom and Joey didn’t get along. Cindy lived in Pennsylvania, conveniently distant. The grandchildren rarely gave her a passing thought. Len had his own issues, but she was his mother. Surrendering his apartment, he moved back into his old bedroom and hired Olivia to watch over her while he was at work. The arrangement lasted five years, until her death.
Len returned to the living room, where she was polishing off the pie. “Mom,” he began. How to phrase it? “Mom, I haven’t seen you in quite a while. Where have you been?”
She looked around. “Is this my house?”
“Yes, Mom. All yours.”
Now he noticed silence from Joey’s room. The voice was gone.
Mom clicked on the TV and began watching the Today show. Len studied her from the sofa, a tide of dark memories washing over him. Among them, the feeling that something else was amiss. Something more than Joey’s disembodied voice and his mother’s reembodied spirit.