DONNA L. MARSH
LIGHT AND SHADOW
One day last summer the forecast was for a beautiful sunny, warm day and this day was promised between days that were not to be so bright. I planned, as I always do when I am promised full sun, to bask in the rays of energy that first bake skin and then core. But like any promise unfulfilled, the disappointment over the thing missing is never as wrong as the lie. So when the clouds thickened early I sat, trusting in their eventual parting so that the tethers of light could find me. I sat in the backyard, occasionally holding my hand out over my body to see in my shadow any evidence of light. I waited and waited, circling in confusion, circling in and out of the house, wondering whether to give up. I did not know what my day should be in sun’s absence.
Late last night, in the late afternoon of my father-in-law’s descent into Alzheimer’s, he was born a widower. Once a proud and humble man, a doctor, thin of frame, but in body and demeanor certain of his life and accomplishments, he is now withering. His days are spent forgetting. In a full white beard and soiled underclothes, with little recognition of persons around him, he oscillates between awareness of his space in the home his work built and utter confusion about where he belongs. Should he sit in the chair downstairs in the living room, where before she was taken away by ambulance for the one and final time my mother-in-law sat nearby in her chair? Should he lay in the bed he once shared with her, my mother-in-law, our Polly? This was the home my husband Robert was born into. The smell of their skin and the mustiness of lives spent busy is no different today than it was when I was first introduced as Robert’s girl.
In her final months, Polly could no longer walk without pain so great that the universe must surely have registered its scale. She sat in her chair, slept in her chair, ate in her chair, next to him in his.
He called her then, the woman who was not his wife. Sometimes, he would say, “I have to go now. Thank you for your hospitality.”
She would respond, “Where are you going?”
“To find my family. To find my wife.”
“I am your wife!”
“You’ve been lovely to me, but I must go home.”
“You are home!”
She would call to tell me these stories, always in her way, knowing the horror of what had happened, but, as was her way, as if this was some ridiculous joke, as if in laughing about it, the ironies, multiple and brutal could be mitigated. She had a light, lyrical voice and on occasion I could still hear the Boston inflection. In her house we never had dinner; we had suppah. At eighty-five she never sounded elderly. Never sounded so much the mom as she did still the daughter.
“I have to tell you what Dad said today,” she would begin our phone conversations, as the corner of the phrase held her smile.
“I told him, I am your wife. Arrrrrhhhh!” and then she’d laugh and I’d see her punch her fists in the air, to mime her frustration as she did when I was there. Then I would offer something serious, some tip. Like, lock the doors and set the alarm, or don’t hesitate to call 911 or it’s wonderful that we can laugh. And she would agree. But that wasn’t the point. She was not after advice. Nor agreement. The point was to laugh, to confront with joy and life the determined ways time took us.
When Robert got back to the family home after Mom, who lingered for seven weeks in the hospital, finally slipped away, he found his Dad awake. Confused. His night way of being. Robert showed him back to bed, and slept himself, the tears of grief, I imagine, not flowing, but leaking onto pillows, bought by her long ago.
In the morning, he found Dad peeking into the room where Robert had been sleeping, the room that had been occupied by his sister, Claire, his sister who passed away only months before. I remember, Polly saying, after Claire’s funeral, “He doesn’t even know it’s his daughter. He thinks it’s someone from down the street or from the parish.” This she did not find funny, though she knew as the nurse to his doctoring, that it was not he who forgot. It was the body left as the light goes dim. I knew that the pain of her body was compounded by the loss of her baby girl. Claire died one day before her 52nd birthday.
My husband got out of Claire’s bed. He took Dad into his room, washed him and changed him. And then they went downstairs to the dining room. And he told Dad that Mom was gone.
Dad nodded, and said, “She fought bravely, Robert,” and walked back to the chair in the living room where he sat in his fresh underclothes, slumped.
Robert stayed in the dining room where he could watch Dad sitting, the light from the door to the yard on the back of his head.
Dad rose and walked back into the kitchen. He asked, “What does up in smoke mean?”
Robert said, “I don’t know.”
Dad paused, pondered for a moment, and said, “She’ll never go for that.”
Donna L. Marsh teaches writing and rhetoric at Syracuse University and lives in central New York with her husband, Robert O’Connor. Her creative nonfiction essays have been published in numerous journals and magazines including Arrive Magazine, Rose Red Review, Refinery29.com, Weirderary (forthcoming), WraparoundSouth.org (2016), Stone Canoe Journal and AwayJournal.org. She has been publishing on Huffington Post and the Guardian UK as Donna Marsh O’Connor for the better part of the last ten years.