River talk addresses trio of angelsOctober 21, 2020
By SCOTT SAALMAN
The wide Ohio is deceptively still, its glassy surface reflecting an orange and white smokestack casted from the opposite bank. Below, unseen currents roil and rage.
At first, Mom tries skipping rocks toward Kentucky, but her attempts lack the necessary side-arm, wrist-snap motion. Her lobs result in the rocks sinking without a single skip. We blame it on the rocks. They just don’t make rocks like they used to. Then, Mom and I have one of our river talks.
She tells me about angels that kept a bedside vigil over her two summers past at the hospital up river in Louisville where 60 percent of her liver was removed.
“They sat near my bed,” she says. “They might have been on a bench. I’m not sure.”
Mom’s body has been a medical battlefield for four years now. The cancer moved from her colon to her liver to her lungs. This past Labor Day, it took a shine to her pancreas.
She has always liked watching the tracking of hurricanes on the Weather Channel, and I often liken her stage four cancer to a category five storm, its tempestuous spin and churn organ-hopping to yet another landfall.
“There were three of them,” she says. I smile at the thought of Mom being gifted the companionship of an angelic trio, an optimistic, heavenly headcount considering her disinterest in organized religion. I am often reminded about a Mass she and I attended in the 1960s, how, during the Gospel, I shouted, “$%&*, Patty, let’s go home,” my heathenish, scatological-based command echoing throughout St. Paul’s. I was 2 then, merely parroting what Dad often said just before exiting a social gathering. I envision Mom and me fleeing the church, outpacing the parishioners’ torch flames and pitchforks. I was a monster child. Later, an altar boy.
In Louisville, Mom became open to prayers from friends and family. Before then, she instructed people to save their prayers for those who really needed them.
In Louisville, Mom actually warmed up to morphine. Throughout life, she boasted never taking so much as an aspirin for a headache. That she actually welcomed morphine was a testament to the sheer nastiness of liver surgery. Clearly, back then, Mom needed as many angels as could be assembled.
“All three had dark hair,” she says. “They had clothes.”
A white triple-decker towboat pushes a single barge alongside the Kentucky shore. Mom marvels at the way a dexterous deckhand quickly walks toward the bow, balancing himself with mountain goat-like assuredness atop the bobbing barge’s cargo.
For the first time, I tell Mom about a dream I had prior to her liver surgery, one I’d suppressed. I hear clip-clops on cobblestone. I sit on the floor of a horse-drawn carriage. I smell river. I look up and see Mom sitting on a carriage bench. She’s wearing all white, angelic-like. Her smile widens in morning mist. I woke up sobbing to the dampest pillow I’ve ever known. The comforting weight of my wife’s hand caressing my bald head pulled me from the flood of tears.
I look away from Mom as my eyes sting at the dream’s retelling. The deckhand secures the barge to a steel mooring. Mom’s only response is, “Your dad and I once rode a carriage in New Orleans.”
I was certain Mom would not survive the liver surgery. But she did. Then, nearly a year later, on July 7, she was given two months to live. Three months later, she was very much alive — and still is.
She actually admits to some pain now. She rates it a two, then, not liking the implication, lessens it to one.
“They didn’t have wings or halos,” Mom says. “They looked more like human beings.”
Her admission of pain is worrisome. Her “two” is a normal person’s “seven.”
“So why not take your pain meds?”
“I don’t want to get addicted,” she says.
Mom’s worriment over painkiller addiction at this time in her life is akin to a blindfolded prisoner standing before a firing squad refusing the offering of one final cigarette by responding, “Are you nuts? Those things will kill you.”
“They smiled at me,” she says of her angels.
Mom lost two infant girls. My older sister died the same day she was born. My younger sister died of a virus in the hospital. I vaguely recall posing for a photo with her, the blinding glow of the Instamatic’s flash cube. I never saw the photo. Perhaps, the film was never developed. Her comforting weight in my arms was gone, in a flash. I’m also aware of a miscarriage.
“And then one said, ‘You’re going to be OK,’ ” Mom says. “They got up and turned into a white mist, like your soul does, and then they went through the wall or the window. That was good enough for me. I laid back down and went to sleep.”
“You really believe they were angels?”
“Everybody thinks I have a lot of angels,” she says.
I study her face, which divulges no clues to what’s below the surface (the category five, the stage four), the pain deep down. My pragmatic side tells me the angels were merely a figment induced via a morphine drip.
“I really, really, don’t believe I will be going anywhere for a while,” she says.
A stiff breeze then. River chop. An autumnal chill.
Let there be angels.
Contact Scott Saalman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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