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The News from Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Storyby Joan Wickersham
The News from Spain
The news from Spain is terrible. A bomb under a park bench in a small town near Madrid. Fifteen people have been killed and dozens injured. Harriet tells the aide, who crosses herself; the nurse, who says, “It makes you want to stay home and never leave the house—but that would just be giving in to terrorism”; and her daughter Rebecca, who says, “Why do you spend all day watching that stuff?”
Rebecca is tired. Harriet has been sick on and off for years, more than a decade. Rebecca has just driven four hours from Boston to get to the Connecticut nursing home where Harriet now lives. She is taking two days off from the small bookstore she owns, paying her part-time assistant extra to cover for her. She’s brought a shopping bag full of things Harriet likes: rice pudding with raisins, shortbread, fresh figs, and a box of lame-juns from a Middle Eastern bakery. She has walked into the room and Harriet has barely looked away from the TV to say hello.
What Harriet says is, “They just interviewed a man whose granddaughter died in his arms.”
Rebecca puts down the shopping bag and kisses the top of her mother’s head. Someone has given Harriet a haircut, a sur- prisingly flattering one. Her head smells faintly of shampoo.
Harriet puts up a hand and feels for Rebecca’s face, briefly cupping her chin. “They think it was a Basque separatist group.”
Rebecca nods and goes down the hall to the kitchen, to put the rice pudding and lamejuns in the fridge. The hallway is full of wheelchairs, a straggly becalmed flotilla of gray people just sitting there, some with their heads lolling on their chests. On the way back to her mother’s room, she runs into the social worker assigned to Harriet’s case. Today is Halloween; the social worker is wearing a pirate hat and an eye patch. “How do you think your mom is doing?” she asks Rebecca.
“I think she’s still angry about being here,” Rebecca says. Harriet moved into the nursing home a month ago, after the rehab hospital said she had “plateaued,” and the assisted-living place said they couldn’t take her back.
“I know,” the social worker says. “But they adjust.”
When she goes back into her mother’s room, Harriet is watching for her. The TV is off. “I’m so glad you came,” Harriet says.
“I just ran into the social worker in the hall. She says you’re adjusting.”
“Bullshit,” Harriet says. “Did you bring stuffed grape leaves?”
“I didn’t remember that you liked them.”
“I love them.”
“Next time,” Rebecca says. She pulls over a chair and sits facing her mother. Harriet is in a wheelchair, paralyzed again—it has happened before, she has some rare chronic spinal disease, but this time the neurologist says it is permanent. Rebecca, who came down to go with her mother to that appointment last month, listened while he talked to Harriet about suffering and acceptance, about how what was happening to her was truly terrible, worse than what anyone should have to go through. Rebecca liked the doctor’s humanity, and thought it might be somewhat comforting to Harriet; certainly Harriet has always found it gratifying to be admired for her bravery. But Harriet was furious. “He’s talking philosophy when what I really want to hear about is stem-cell research.”
Rebecca feels guilty about not making it down to see her mother more often. Harriet is always mentioning something she needs—lavender talcum powder, or socks, or an afghan to put over her legs when they wheel her outside, or, she sighs, “just a really good turkey club sandwich.” Rebecca mails what she can, alternately touched by and annoyed by the many requests (are they wistful, or reproachful? Both, she thinks). (But they are also, simply, practical. These are the small things we live with, and Harriet now has no way to get hold of them.) She has talked to Harriet about moving to a nursing home in the Boston area. “It would be more convenient.”
“For you, you mean,” Harriet said. She is adamant about staying in this particular nursing home, because the man she’s in love with is in the assisted-living place next door, and comes over to visit her nearly every day. Rebecca thinks it’s great that her mother has someone, though she could do without some of Harriet’s more candid reports (“Ralph called me this morning and said, ‘I wish I could make love to you right now’ ”).
“How is Ralph?” Rebecca asks now.
Harriet shrugs. “He thinks I’m mad at him because he didn’t give me a birthday present.”
“Yes.” They laugh. They talk. Rebecca heats up some lame- juns in the kitchen microwave and makes Harriet a cup of tea. They hear the woman in the room next door say loudly, angrily, “Who washed my floor?” A low murmuring answer; then the angry woman again: “In the future I must ask that you not wash my floor without first giving me notice.”
Rebecca looks at Harriet. Harriet says, “At first I thought, Oh good, at least she sounds like she has all her marbles. But that’s all she ever says, on and on, day and night about the floor.”
Some lamejun has fallen onto the front of Harriet’s sweat- shirt; when she finally notices and brushes it off, it leaves a spot. “Damn it.” She wipes furiously away at it, but in the midst of the fury is also grinning ruefully at Rebecca—Can you believe it? How does it happen every single time? She’s a very large woman, and she’s been dropping food on her shirt for as long as Rebecca can remember. The last time Rebecca visited, on the day Harriet moved to the nursing home, the aide swathed Harriet’s front in an enormous terry-cloth bib before bringing in her dinner tray. Harriet allowed it, looking at Rebecca with a kind of stunned sadness; of all the enraging indignities of that day, this was the one that undid her. “She doesn’t need that,” Rebecca told the aide.
“We do it for everybody.”
“Right, but my mother doesn’t need it.”
So that was one small battle that Rebecca was there to win for Harriet. Without Rebecca, Harriet could have won it just fine for herself. Both of them knew this—and yet, between them, love has always had to be proved. It is there; and it gets proved, over and over. Some of their worst fights, confusingly, seem to both prove and disprove it: two people who didn’t love each other couldn’t fight like that—certainly not repeatedly.
Still, Rebecca has often wished for something quieter with Harriet. Are there mothers and daughters who can be happy together without saying much?
“You know,” Harriet says now, frowning, clearly resuming an argument she’s been conducting in her head, “you jump on me about watching the news all the time, but it’s not because I’m just some morbid tragedy hound, it’s—”
“I know why it is,” Rebecca says.
Rebecca’s younger sister, Cath, disapproves of the relationship between Rebecca and Harriet. She thinks it’s unhealthily close. She says she is tired of giving Harriet inches and having her take miles. (Rebecca, who has never seen Cath give Harriet an inch, finds this declaration both funny and infuriating.) Cath is a sculptor and lives in Denver. She thinks Harriet is a mon- ster. She thinks—and here Rebecca agrees with her—that their father, a quiet, scholarly, self-deprecating man who drank, had ended up drinking more and walling himself up more and dying lonely because Harriet took up so much room. Harriet always had another man, single, recently divorced or widowed. “She had affairs,” Cath said. “She broke Daddy’s heart.”
“You think those were affairs?” Rebecca asked, remember- ing all those wistful, mostly handsome, young men who had always seemed to her to be intruding—what were they doing at the Thanksgiving table? Why were they hanging around on Christmas Eve?—eagerly passing the cranberry sauce and trying brightly and unsuccessfully to engage her father in conversation.
“Not consummated affairs,” Cath said, with exasperated authority. “Mom was never brave enough, or radical enough, to actually sleep with anyone else. Those affairs were all about noble renunciation of actual sex. They were all about depriva- tion and suffering.”
She has said, more recently, to Rebecca over the phone: “She’s going to live to be a hundred, you know. People like that, who only care about themselves, live forever, because every ounce of energy they have goes into preserving the organism.”
Rebecca and her mother had begun to get close only when, nearly fifteen years ago, Harriet seemed to be dying.
She was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer just when the revelations broke about the rotten marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales. Rebecca was going through her own fierce divorce at the time (it had started amicably, with a media- tor, and then escalated to the point where the lawyers’ bills had become so horrifying, so disproportionate to whatever it was that she and Steve had been fighting over, that the two of them had met for a drink one night and agreed to do everything the mediator had suggested in the first place).
But when Harriet got sick, Rebecca picked up the phone and called her soon-to-be-ex-father-in-law, who was on the board of a famous cancer hospital. She believed that Steve’s father, who had never liked her much and had never done much to conceal his dislike, was nonetheless fundamentally ethical and would do what he could to help. (Another belief, both bitter and accurate, was that he liked to remind himself of his own power by pulling strings and making things happen.) He got Harriet admitted to the hospital, and the surgeon who was sup- posed to be brilliant lived up to his billing.
The doctor came and spoke to Rebecca after Harriet’s surgery, which took an entire day. “I got it all,” he said, and went on to list all the places where he’d found it: pretty much every- where, as far as Rebecca could tell.
“So what’s her prognosis?” Rebecca made herself ask, though she felt she already knew.
The surgeon looked seriously at her. “I have no idea,” he said.
Rebecca wanted to hug him for that, and would have hugged Steve’s father, if he had been there. She did hug Steve, who had showed up unexpectedly at the hospital and sat in the waiting room with her all day. They had spent most of the time hunched over a book of Sunday New York Times crossword puzzles; they screwed up each one irreparably, in ink, and then they would make a big blue X on it before moving on to the next one.
During that day, and right afterward, Rebecca thought that maybe the divorce was a mistake, and that she and Steve would get back together. But it turned out to be like the illness of Anna Karenina: a kind of temporary exalted goodwill, a glimpse of how lovely things might have been if everybody hadn’t felt the way they actually did feel.
She went out and bought People magazine, and a copy of Diana: Her True Story. Every day she read to Harriet, who lay in bed with tubes coming out of her nose and puffy boots inflat- ing and deflating around her legs at automatic intervals, to pre- vent blood clots. “She tried to kill herself with a lemon slicer?” Harriet said. “What’s a lemon slicer? Do they mean a peeler? She tried to peel herself to death?” The two of them sat there in the dark hospital room, laughing. Whenever the surgeon came in, Rebecca hid the book and the magazine in the nightstand, because Harriet didn’t want him to think she was the kind of woman who read trash.
Harriet would later say of that time, “It was a nightmare.”
Rebecca, who, partly in reaction to her mother’s hyperbolic way of putting things, tends toward understatement, would say, “It was tough.” But while it was going on, it was, in some bizarre way, also wonderful. They liked being together, for the first time in years. One afternoon, a couple of days after the surgery, Harriet needed a blood transfusion. The drip was still running when someone, mistakenly, brought in a dinner tray. Harriet was not allowed to have anything by mouth, and so Rebecca told the aide: “We don’t need that.”
“Oh, you’ve eaten already?” the aide said.
Harriet, lying on her back with the blood still dripping into her arm, raised her hands and curved them into little bat claws and said, in what Rebecca somehow understood was meant to be a Transylvanian accent: “I’m still eating.”
Rebecca laughed, and her eyes filled with tears at the val- iance of it, the surprise of that sudden little flash of wit.
It was before Rebecca started the bookstore; she was teaching high school English then, so she had the summer off. She went to the hospital every day and stayed there all day.
Then Harriet went through her year of chemotherapy. Rebecca was teaching again, but she went down to Connecticut on a lot of weekends. The pope got colon cancer. They watched the networks grappling with the delicate challenge of report- ing on a pontiff’s gastrointestinal system: lots of disembodied scientific diagrams juxtaposed with footage of worried-looking nuns praying in Saint Peter’s Square.
“What do you think the nurses are saying to him right now?” Harriet said, lying on the couch and looking at a shot of the outside of the hospital where the pope had been operated on earlier that week.
“Okay, Your Holiness, scoot your heinie over to the edge of the bed,” Rebecca said.
Harriet laughed and laughed. Then she threw up.
So here’s the glib psychological explanation: Harriet had always craved attention and now, made vulnerable by illness, needed more; Rebecca had failed at her marriage and needed to feel like a hero.
All of which was true. But it was more that they both discov- ered, almost shyly, that they liked each other. That they were having, in the middle of all this dire stuff, a good time together.
It was also, Rebecca knew, that her mother was dying. She sometimes lay in bed at night and cried, alone, or with Peter Bigelow, who taught architectural history at Harvard and whose two children—he was divorced—went to the school where Rebecca taught. He held her and listened while she talked about how hard it was to be finding her mother and los- ing her at the same time.
But, Peter said, it sounds like the knowledge that you’re los- ing her has been part of what allowed you to find her.
Oh, he was a nice man, Peter. Back then, her romance with him felt too new. Too soon embarked on, after Steve (though she and Steve had been separated for nearly two years by the time Peter asked her out to dinner). Too green and slight to bear the weight of everything Rebecca was feeling back then, about her divorce, about Harriet. Poor guy, she had thought, looking at Peter’s kind, earnest face, his sandy rumpled hair, his open, trusting bare chest, his kind hand resting on the sleeve of her flannel nightgown.
Are you sure you don’t mind, if we don’t, tonight?
Of course not.
I’m sorry, I thought I wanted to, but—
Rebecca. Don’t worry. It’s fine.
His tenderness seemed almost unbelievable to her. She might have been suspicious of it, seen it as his need for heroism, or as a ploy to hook her before revealing his true, selfish self (remember, she was just wrapping up a divorce). But she’d seen him for years with his kids. He was nice, period. He cared for her without being maudlin or nurselike. He took her out to dinner and to concerts, talked to her about his work enthusiastically and not at all pompously (he was writing a book on H. H. Richardson), listened while she talked about wanting to quit teaching to open a bookstore, and was frank and relaxed in bed.
He advised her to pace herself with Harriet. Her friends were saying the same thing, especially the ones who’d had sick parents. Go easy, take time for yourself, don’t let this take over your whole life. Rebecca thought she was pacing herself, some. She was still driving down to Connecticut almost every week- end, but she was also teaching, and seeing Peter, and getting together with friends. But her mother was dying, and Rebecca wanted to cram in as much as she could. In some unexpected way she and Harriet had fallen in love.
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