Patricia Abbott

Last Rights

The call came at one o’clock on a Sunday morning. A dinner party celebrating their tenth anniversary had just broken up, and Kevin was carrying a tray of glasses in from the dining room while Gwen filled the dishpan with soapy water. The overloaded dishwasher was chugging away with the sturdier plates and silverware.

“Let the machine get it,” Kevin cautioned from the doorway. “It’s probably Harry calling from a bar.”

Gwen nodded tiredly. They had tried to sober Harry Lennox up for the last hour, but it was useless as long as a single bar remained open on his route home. It would be like him to taunt them from a noisy roadhouse.

The machine picked the call up on the fifth ring, and they listened as Kevin’s voice lugubriously announced their unavailability. Expecting to hear Harry’s gleeful response, they were surprised to hear a woman’s voice.

“Mrs. Ernst? Are you there?”

As they looked at each other, bewildered, Gwen reached for the phone. There was no mistaking the bureaucratic tone in the woman’s voice.

“This is Gwen Ernst.”

“This is Mrs. Hunter. The night supervisor at Helping Hands.”

“Yes, Mrs. Hunter,” Gwen said, preparing herself for the worst. “Is it….”

“Your mother’s quite all right,” Mrs. Hunter broke in, “but we’ve just had a little episode. One never thinks….” Her voice trailed off, then came back stronger. “She’s asking for you, but I wanted to speak to you first before I put her on.”

“Is she refusing to go to bed?” Gwen asked. The pause suggested something more serious than insomnia. What could it be this time?

Gwen’s mother had made a series of increasingly difficult adjustments over the last two years. This last move was to a locked building at a facility for patients with Alzheimer’s in Gwen’s neighborhood. Marion Sweet had lasted just six months in the unit permitting its patients access to the outside. Last week, after leaving the grounds entirely and hopping on a city bus, she had been asked to resituate herself in Building C. Or rather Gwen had been asked, and, of course, it was Gwen and Kevin along with Kevin’s college-aged son, Jeremy, who made the move for her.

Mrs. Sweet showed little distress at finding herself in a new location. Picking up her omnipresent handbag, she explored her new surroundings, showing only minor frustration at the locked doors. Watching her mother pace the corridor that first day, Gwen was reminded of a primitive organism that unthinkingly reverses its course when an obstacle halts its forward progress.

“Do you want me to come over?” Gwen asked. “I can be there in twenty minutes.”

“No, no. I think if you just spoke with her, she’d go right off to bed.”

“Hello?” Her mother’s tone was without inflection nowadays. Gwen still hadn’t grown used to it.

“Mother, do you know who this is?”

After a pause, Marion answered triumphantly. “Of course, I know who it is. It’s you!”

“Mother, Mrs. Hunter’s going to take you off to bed now. Will you go with her, please?” She could feel her mother’s nod, and then Mrs. Hunter came back on the line.

“Would you stop by the office the next time you visit?” she asked Gwen. “I have something I’d like to discuss.”

*     *     *

“We found your mother in Mr. Karl’s room last night.”

Barely seated in Mrs. Hunter’s office the next afternoon, Gwen’s handbag slipped onto the floor. That isn’t so bad, she told herself soothingly as she reached for it. “Is visiting a man against the rules?”

“It’s not the visiting aspect that bothered us, Mrs. Ernst. Oh dear, I don’t know how to say this, but we found your mother naked in Fred Karl’s bed.” Mrs. Hunter gave a sigh of relief. “Well, now that I got that out, I’m just going to keep going. The two of them were having sex, and your mother was quite angry when we insisted they stop.”

Faced with Gwen’s silence, she added detail to the story. “Marion flatly refused to get out of Fred’s bed. I don’t think it was modesty so much as resentment they were interrupted.” Mrs. Hunter sighed. “She was quite irate, actually. And Fred was very upset when we made him leave while we dressed her. He got it in his head that we were giving his room to Marion.” She paused to allow Gwen to digest this information, then plunged ahead, “Some of our residents were awakened by the fracas, and we ended up with a minor insurrection. It can get like a birdhouse....”

“I’m stunned. I guess I thought that part of her life was over long ago.” Since my father died, Gwen didn’t say aloud.

“I couldn’t help but wonder if we did the right thing, Mrs. Ernst? They are consenting adults, if not exactly of sound mind. How do you feel?”

How do I feel? Gwen asked herself.

“Don’t think this is the first tryst we’ve interrupted at Helping Hands,” Mrs. Hunter said at the door. “Many of our patients have spouses paying conjugal visits. The disease doesn’t always dissipate desire. Of course, this is a little unusual….”

There was very little censure in her voice. And only a trace of amusement.

*     *     *

“So what’s going on?” Kevin asked at dinner. “Is Marion up to no good?”

Normally his question would have amused her. Kevin and Marion got on well, and he had been perfectly willing to have Marion come live with them until the pace of her disease precluded this option.

When she had brought Kevin up to speed, he showed little hesitation. “Let them do what they like, Gwen, for Pete’s sake! It must be good for her to have an interest. If it’s sex, so much the better.”

He shut off his light shortly, and she was left to wonder why the decision seemed less clear to her. She felt woefully inadequate to govern or even consider her mother’s sexuality. Could sex be a good thing for a woman who barely knew who or where she was anymore?

Marion Sweet had always been a very private person, especially where her body was concerned, and, until last year, when the disease intervened, Gwen had never once seen her mother naked. In the dead of summer, Mother insisted on stockings and long sleeved blouses with an abundance of concealing lace. No one had ever seen her in a swimsuit except for the brief moments when she disrobed to step into the water.

Gwen and her sister, Patricia, had speculated for years on the reason behind these peculiarities. Patricia favored the idea of some deformity.

“You’d see a deformity through her stockings,” Gwen insisted. “It must be something else.”

“Maybe Dad beat her, and she was hiding bruises?”

Gwen rolled her eyes. Their father had been the gentlest of men. Asked to administer a spanking, Bob Sweet had been unable to lift his hand. Touching in any way had been difficult for both their parents. Physically awkward and easily embarrassed, the Sweet parents looked upon anything beyond a quick hug or a kiss on the cheek as overly dramatic. Affection was expressed through actions, through thoughtfulness.

She had forgotten this. Only last year when they moved her mother to Detroit from Fairfield, Indiana, Gwen had been shocked to find drawer after drawer of handkerchiefs, full slips, dress shields, girdles, old-fashioned garter belts and stockings, white gloves, all things she had given up as a young teenager in the sixties. Did her mother still wear such apparel? Marion had even told Gwen once that toeless shoes were vulgar. Even the tiny expanse of toe exposed by pumps was a dilemma.

“Feet are ugly,” she observed stoutly, and kept her own inside her shoes. Another time, she told Patricia that she looked forward to spending eternity in heaven where she could leave her corporeal state behind.

“How in the world did we come to enjoy sex?” Pat said to Gwen after that comment.

So one would have expected Marion to be a difficult mother for two girls, but she hadn’t been. Her rules, her modesty, mostly applied to herself, and, beyond a gentle reminder now and then, she did little to pass on her proclivities.

It was very hard for Gwen to reconcile these memories with the woman in Mr. Karl’s bed. Was her impression of her mother false? Had Marion spent her life hiding a deep sexuality behind a prim wardrobe and distaste for show?

When she called Patricia the next morning, Pat took much the same view as Kevin.

“You go, Mom,” Pat said, after her laughter faded. “Have you seen him yet? Mother’s beau, I mean.”

“Listen, Pat, he’s not her beau. She’s hardly been in that unit a week. I wonder, if I asked about him, would she even know who he was? She doesn’t remember much these days.”

Gwen refused Pat’s offer to fly to Detroit. Her sister’s inclination to find the humor in any situation derailed any serious talk. It would have to be her decision.

*     *     *

She found her mother standing in the TV room at Helping Hands. Marion was dressed with her usual care in an old-fashioned pink shirtwaist dress. Someone had curled her hair, and her nails were freshly polished. When Gwen tried to kiss her, Marion grabbed her wrist painfully.

“Look, that’s him,” she said loudly, gesturing toward a man sitting quietly in a corner armchair. The man was years younger than Marion was and, despite her noisy overtures, refused to look up.

“Let’s go to your room, Mother.” Gwen said, reaching for her arm.

Pushing her hand away, Marion started across the room. The noise level began to rise, although no one looked directly at them. Gwen was reminded of the overcrowded monkey house at the zoo of her childhood. Did intuition rise as stimulation was denied? Even residents seemingly involved in a checker game or a television show seemed to sense what was going on.

“Let me escort this lovely lady to her room.” A very large man—an orderly, Gwen guessed—took Marion’s arm, and Marion, giving him a heartbreaking smile, went right along.

“Is that Mr. Karl?” Gwen asked the orderly. “That man in the corner?”

“No, that’s Geoff,” he told her, turning his head. “Geoff Turner.”

At the mention of his name, Marion said quite clearly. “I don’t like to leave him alone in here. Someone else might get him.” Fluffing her hair, she allowed herself to be escorted to her room.

“I talked to Pat last night,” Gwen told her mother once they were alone in her room.

“I haven’t seen Patricia in years,” Marion said, standing in the doorway where she could survey the corridor. “She’s always hated Elkhart. Thinks its hillbilly country.”

Gwen didn’t bother reminding Marion that she lived in Michigan now. Or that Pat had flown in to see her only last month. “Mom, Mrs. Hunter told me you were in Mr. Karl’s room last night.”

Marion shrugged. “He’s a friend of your father’s. I was just being a good….”

Hostess, Gwen finished for her silently. She had stopped reminding her mother of missing words months ago. It only upset both of them. For a second, she wondered if being a good hostess had had another meaning in the 1950s. But that was ridiculous. It was growing difficult to bring the Marion Sweet of Gwen’s childhood or even the recent past into focus. Looking at her mother now, posed defiantly at the door, she was disconcerted by the sly look on her face.

“ Shall I stay for lunch?”

“I don’t think we’re having anything good today,” Marion said. “You’d better go along and start dinner for….” Marion looked uneasy when she couldn’t remember Kevin’s name, but the procession in the hall captured her attention and she joined the crowd. She didn’t look back.

*     *     *

Kevin was sitting in the living room when Gwen came through the door.

“So,” he joked, “Does she look any different now that she’s a tart?”

Gwen threw him a look that wiped the grin off his face. “She didn’t even remember you today. She’s so interested in sex that everything else is getting short shrift.”

“One roll in the hay doesn’t….”

“I think it goes further than that. She was eyeing some guy in the TV lounge like a randy sixteen-year-old. . . boy.”

“That’s a bit misogynistic. Or do I mean misanthropic?” He shrugged. “Maybe she’s always been interested in sex. Her daughters might be the last to know.”

*     *     *

He was right, Gwen realized the next day. She didn’t know. She had taken the day off from work to decide what to do. It was rainy, and, although there had been almost no warm weather yet this spring, a series of rogue thunderstorms rumbled through her neighborhood.

Earlier, she had gone to Helping Hands, talking to both the staff psychiatrist and a nurse assigned to care for her mother. Both women agreed that she must make the decision herself, and neither offered much help. There was a women’s wing, they told her, with a room available. She’d be isolated there, in effect. Men would be as scarce as children.

Of course, Marion seemed to prefer the company of men, the psychiatrist said, with an imperturbable face. Maybe she’d be even more agitated in the sole company of women.

There were drugs they could use to suppress her desire, the nurse told her, although they would probably confuse her even more. They’d make her sluggish.

“Look, it won’t be what you think,” the nurse finally offered. “Sometimes, once they settle in, the impulse for romance dies.”

“And what if her impulse is purely sexual?” Gwen asked.

“This will sound cruel, but the disease will take that, too.”

Gwen shivered involuntarily and the nurse patted her shoulder, but the perfunctory gesture carried little comfort.

Stopping in her mother’s room, she found Marion watching a soap.

“Who are those people?” Gwen asked, curious to see if her mother understood the plot at all.

“Oh, I don’t know, dear, but they’re nice-looking. I like the dark one who looks like you the best.”

Gwen started to reply, but Marion’s behavior silenced her. Her mother was staring at the screen with rapt attention as a couple clung to each other on a mock patio. Gwen watched as Marion’s arms encircled her own body in response. Her large freckled hands caressed her neck, her shoulders. Gwen looked away.

Back home, she sat in the living room, listening to the foghorns on the lake. The lake of her childhood had been a vacation spot where families placed colorful blankets on a pristine white beach leading up to a benign body of water. The lake here, a mere two blocks away, had no real beaches, and if a foolish person walked along its edge and slipped, she drowned. Neighborhood children swam in cement pools nowadays. At least, she guessed they did.

Gwen had never had a child, her final child-bearing years having fallen between Roger and Kevin. Both men had managed to tuck in a child at some point. Roger had two now, in fact, although she had never met them. Even access to Kevin’s child, Jeremy, had been sporadic. Jeremy was fourteen when Gwen and Kevin married, and his mother had been reluctant for him to spend any extended time with them in the first few years of their marriage. He was never the sort of boy to permit more than a stiff embrace on a holiday anyway.

It occurred to her again that she had no experience in making life-altering decisions for another person. No one had ever relied on her to look out for them. Decision-making of this sort should have started with whether or not to use cloth diapers and not with whether to deny her mother a sex life.

On those vacations in Gwen’s childhood, Marion had sat on the beach in a billowing summer dress, a long-sleeved beach jacket, and a large straw hat. Had she been embarrassed by her mother’s strange attire? Certainly. By their teenage years, Patricia and she had laughed mercilessly at their mother’s quirky dress, although always out of Marion’s earshot. Had her father found Marion’s dress odd, too? He had had his own peculiarities—huge “trunks,” as he called them, and those awful sleeveless tee shirts, often stained ochre at the armpits.

The elder Sweets had seemed quite content on the beach, despite their eccentric dress. She could still picture her mother wading in the water with only her large freckled ankles exposed, gobs of lotion protecting her skin at a time when most people were slick with baby oil. And then, when the heat finally overcame her, Marion would quickly discard her cover-up and dart into the lake, plunging right into the deeper water and swimming straight out until the lifeguard whistled her back.

But when the air was more temperate, she remained on the beach. Generally, it was the girls who looked back at their parents from the water. They tracked their parent’s location by the large purple and gold umbrella that managed to survive their childhood and now sat intact, if faded, in Gwen’s basement. Spotting their parents beneath it, the girls would giggle about how, once alone, the two adults moved closer on the blanket. Marion in her long skirts and straw hat and Bob in his baggy trunks sat close enough to appear as one from a distance. Only when the girls returned from the lake, dripping wet and screaming with laughter, did their parents reluctantly part to make room for their daughters. There was a snapshot somewhere of the four of them on the blanket that a passing tourist took. In the picture, Gwen and Pat were sandwiched together by their parents, who were looking at each other over the girls’ heads. Gwen remembered that look very well.

*     *     *

Gwen made the call to Helping Hands before Kevin got home. “Let her stay where she is,” she told Ms. Hunter.

“I’m sure you know best,” the woman responded enigmatically. So there would be neither congratulations nor censure from the staff.

Gwen picked up the phone to call Pat and put it down. Better to give it a day.

“I’m still not sure that the woman she once was would approve of the woman she’s become,” Gwen told Kevin later. “I keep thinking about those stout shoes and long-sleeved shirts. Did I betray that woman?"

“Of course, you didn’t. Would she have wanted the Marion of today to be locked away? Would she want to live her remaining years in the company of women?"

“Well, I’m not sure what I’ll do if she beds half the men at Helping Hands. I’m not sure the staff will tolerate it either.”

“I can’t speak for them, but you’ll cope. Just like she did when Pat and you were teenagers and she had to wonder what you were doing in the backseats of cars at the drive-ins. You’ve done the best thing, Gwen. Allow yourself some credit.”

Gwen nodded slightly. Silently, they went into the kitchen to make dinner.

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