And she, being before instructed of her mother
Sunday morning: I get up at seven for early church. For breakfast, my mother wants toast and a protein drink. I make her two slices of whole wheat with a little butter. I pour the drink into a glass. My father wants carbohydrates and eats three of the six cinnamon rolls I’ve baked, with butter. I am never hungry in the morning. I should eat cottage cheese to give myself energy but instead I peel a banana and drink some coffee.
My mother appraises her toast. I’ve cut each slice into eight pieces by triangling off the corners and then cutting through the middle of the center twice with perpendicular lines.
“You are getting bored with making toast,” she states, matter-of-factly.
“Oh, no, not at all,” I say. “Remember Mrs. Books? She said that simple food, artfully presented, awakens the eyes and the appetite of the invalid.”
“Good to know you were listening in home economics,” mom says. “As opposed to in advanced algebra.”
“I can put a little peanut butter on each one,” I say, hopefully. “I can do it in a smiley face with a little dab of jam–”
“It’s fine, thanks,” she says, and picks up a piece of toast.
“Time for eyedrops, dad,” I say.
We always go to eight o’clock church, since people who grew up milking can never sleep past five, or so the ones I know tell me. The sermon text today is Matthew 14: the beheading of John the Baptist. The sermon topic is loyalty. This is an odd locus for this topic, a more usual one being John 18 (Peter denies Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane). Herod witnesses the dance of his (incestuous) wife’s daughter, usually called Salomé, and likes it so well that he promises her anything. At her mother’s behest, she demands the head of the baptist. Herod regrets his promise but delivers on it, anyway.
The sermon is odd, too, because it’s not about when we should be loyal despite difficulties, but when we should stop. The pastor tells us that there are points at which we need to break our promises. Herod should not have kept his promise to Salome. That, pastor informs us, was false loyalty.
Lutherans have corporate confession of sins. I, a poor miserable sinner, confess unto thee all the sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended thee, and justly deserve thy temporal and eternal punishment. The list is especially long today, so it’s good to have this executive summary. But I am heartily sorry for them, and sincerely repent of them, and I pray thee of thy boundless mercy … to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor sinful being. I pray particularly for forgiveness for my resentment against my father and against G-d. Progress. I used to pray for my father to change while hoarding resentment against G-d because he didn’t.
Can you pray for forgiveness for anger when you’re still angry? Please G-d take this anger away from me? Please G-d forgive me for hating you?
Saturday morning: there’s a lengthy list of tasks, in advance of two people recovering from surgery occupying the living room sofas next week, but one thing I have to do for myself — sign a piece of paper and send it in. My boss has told me to sign the contract and resign later if necessary. It has to go express.
The other thing that has to happen is the beginning prep for the surgery actually planned for the summer, the cataract surgery on my father’s right eye, the one that’s still working. Antibiotic drops. One three times a day, another once a day.
My father and I both have terrible eyes and excellent reflexes. We’ve both spent hours in eye doctors’ chairs. We both have a hard time with people touching our faces. Four drops a day, and he can’t or won’t do them himself. My mother can’t bend over. I identify too much with his fear on this issue, but I’m the only one available to “drop” his eyes.
He lies down on the sofa and I pull out the instructions. I sent him to the pharmacy last week to get this stuff, but only one of the medicines is here. I can’t tell if it’s okay to drop one without the other. I tell him to get up and figure out what happened.
Two hours later he returns with the drops. It takes me seven attempts to get the stuff into his eyes. I feel sorry for him, because I can see it does burn and I know exactly how I’d feel if someone were trying to hold my lower eyelid open.
Saturday, lateforenoonish. After lunch, my mother wants to shower. I’ve figured out that some of the crying is about physical embarrassment, but she seems to have mastered that, now that I look at the wound at least twice a day and help her change her panties and stand and sit. She’s calmer since I’ve been rubbing her tummy with a dry washcloth while the surgical binder is off. It’s been a few days since I’ve seen the back of the binder, though, and when I look at it, it’s dirtier than I’m comfortable with. I suggest to her that I launder it; it will take about ninety minutes to wash and dry. She doesn’t want to lie still that long. I suggest that I buy her another at the drugstore. $30 is too much, she says. I know this is not about the practical questions, so I say, if you go to the doctor Monday and he examines you I can’t send you in this, it’s filthy. Afraid that the nurses will gossip about the dirty Servetus family, she agrees to have it laundered. I can’t get all the stains out but it looks somewhat better. By the time it’s dry, she’s napping, and that’s fine with me.
Saturday early afternoon. It’s time for the next drops. I can’t find him anywhere in the house or yard. I call his cell phone.
“Where are you?”
“I’m at the farm.”
The farm is thirty-five miles away.
“I need to drop you.”
“We can do that when I get home.”
“No, there are evening drops, too.”
“Well, you’ll have to come out here, I’m in the middle of fixing a door.”
“Can’t we meet halfway? Or you come here? I don’t want to leave mom alone.”
“Oh, she’ll be fine. Or we can do it tonight.”
“The instructions say we have to do it now.”
“Well, I’m out here.”
“I’ll be right there.”
I put the phone and the tv remote and a book and some crocheting to do and a glass of water and a handful of raspberries from México in a dish on the table next to the reclining chair and a note with my cell phone number and a reminder that she shouldn’t get up again till we put the binder back on, and that I’ll be back to take her to the mall for a really long walk. I hope for the best. I grab my purse and my phone and the eyedrops, and dash out the door. Hopefully the medicine won’t melt in the heat.
I drive straight to the farm, but no one is there. I call his cell phone and no one answers. I go to the neighbors, who ask me if I want some homemade ice-cream. They’re just about to sit down with it. I say I am looking for my father. They say (no surprise) I should look in the bar. Before I go, Mrs. Nehring tucks a quart of early raspberries into my elbow, reminding me again when I tell her she shouldn’t that my grandmother gave her mother the starters for her own bushes when they moved here all those years ago.
Around here there’s a bar at a crossroads every five miles or so, and I know the one they mean. I don’t see his truck in the lot, but I go in anyway to ask. The owner’s wife is tending bar, and she recognizes me, too. She says, “Oh, honey, haven’t seen you in a long time, almost didn’t recognize you” and I say, “no, how are you?” and she says, “You haven’t had to come here looking for your dad in a long time, have you?” and I say, “no.”
I have a Ph.D., now, but I’m still the girl who walked into bars, asking her father to come home, when her mother sent her.
Mom. Shit. I call home and explain. She sighs. She knows what’s at stake. I hang up.
“Do you know where he is?” I ask the lady.
“Yah,” she said, “the guys who always sit on the corner of the bar were going to go out on the river.”
Now I know I’m screwed; there is no way his cell phone will ever pick up.
Walking into bars hopefully is a fool’s errand. I knew this by the time I was twelve. I was cuter then.
“Drive to the landing,” she urges me. “You can maybe find him still if you floor it. It wasn’t so long ago they left.” She pats me on the arm and gives me a packet of curd. When I demur, she says, “Won’t be fresh anymore tomorrow.”
I try him once more. Still no answer.
I haven’t been the type to floor it since I was eighteen — back when I was always driving as fast as possible to get away from something.
When I get to the landing, he still doesn’t answer his phone, but I can see the boat, and I start to scream bloody murder, and some other people help me, and he sees me. I hold up my phone, and then call his.
He picks up. His speech is quite slurred. “What’s wrong, honey?”
“I have the eyedrops,” I say.
“Oh, I thought we were going to do them tonight.”
“No,” I say, gritting my teeth and speaking through tears, “the instructions say we have to do them now.”
“Well, I’m out here with the guys on the river.”
“I can tell,” I say. “Is that Gordy you’re with? Tell him to bring you right back. It’ll only take a few seconds and you can go back out.”
“Nah,” he says. “You worry too much, honey. Love that you care, though. You’re a real good girl.”
He only tells me he loves me when he’s drunk. My jaw clenches and my eyes tear.
“Tell Gordy to come back here now. If you don’t come back here, I am going to get in my car and drive back ‘home’ tomorrow morning.”
“Now, you don’t have to get all excited, honey!”
He hangs up. I stomp my foot. But after a second the boat turns around and comes back.
When he gets off I can tell they’re all drunk and making remarks about me but screw them. I lead him over to a shady spot under a tree and pull out the drops and tell him to lay his head down on my purse.
I can tell he’s afraid. The booze hasn’t really slowed his reflexes noticeably. It still takes me six tries to get the drops in. He’s still suffering. I wait for the burn to end and help him back up. He doesn’t say anything. He goes back to the boat. His masculine honor has obviously been dinged.
Last week, some time, we’d been watching movies to pass the time and watched A River Runs Through It, which I had not seen.
At the end, when the now elderly pastor (Tom Skerritt) is preaching, he says that we usually can’t help people, either we can’t give them what they need or what we can give them they don’t want or won’t take, but we can keep on loving them, even if we don’t understand them.
I wonder, now, standing at the landing, watching the boat recede, can we really love people, even if we do understand them?
How would we know if we understood them? Or if we loved them?
I think about calling the sheriff’s department to report drunken boaters and don’t. I don’t remember the number for this county. Instead, I call my brother, the volunteer fireman, who’s still at work. He could tell me the number, but he doesn’t pick up.
Saturday, late afternoon: I drive home. It’s also well over ninety degrees and the weather people are telling us not to leave the house if we don’t have to. Most of the state is under an extreme heat advisory. Mom doesn’t want to walk, either, though she’s been lying in place for hours. I know this has to happen. She’s lost something like a pound a day since the surgery, and some of that must be muscle tone. Her legs won’t get stronger if she never uses them. I remind her that we are running out of things to talk about, since we spend so much time together, and at least we’ll be able to make fun of all the things for sale in the mall. She acquiesces, reluctantly.
On the way to the mall, I glimpse the express delivery office. It’s closed.
Mom likes the excitement of the mall, though she’s tired very quickly. It’s a good place to walk, with even floors, all the benches everywhere to sit down on, and many easy places to lean.
Mrs. Books also felt that elderly people like foods with pronounced flavors.
If you wish to tempt the tastebuds of an invalid in record heat, I recommend you try this when you get home after walking.
Take a small napa cabbage and slice it from tip to roots, in paper-thin slices, the thinnest you can cut. Do the same to about six scallions, and to as much cilantro as you can hold tightly in two fists. Mix equal parts sour cream and mayonnaise, add a large spoonful of sugar, some salt and pepper, and as much fresh-squeezed lime juice as you can take. Let stand half an hour, stir, and correct seasonings before serving. This is a good side dish to a minute steak served with buttered great northern beans.
Mrs. Books had no opinion on what alcoholics should eat. But, conveniently, drunks like this dish, too. At dinner, when your father gets so excited about the coleslaw that he loses track of the distinction between his plate and the serving dish, let your eyes meet your mother’s across the table, and bow your head when her eyes shift away.
Stand up, and give her three pills: a statin, a blood pressure pill, an anti-depressant.
When your father falls onto the sofa after dinner, realize that you may not have the nerves left to give him the third drops. Try anyway. Feel him slap your arm away and scatter the drops without even opening his eyes.
Turn on your computer and see this. See who had a really triumphant day. See who still has the beard. Grin in euphoria.
Richard Armitage interviewed at ComicCon, San Diego, California, July 14, 2012. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com
Chat with your friends. Look at some videotape. Don’t think about eyedrops, or whether your father will be able to take care of your mother in a month, or even see.
Leave your boss a message. Get one back in which he tells you that the dean agrees we already have an contract based on your email agreement, and a faxed signature on Monday will be fine.
Go to bed. Sleep badly.
Sunday, after church. My mom asks me what I thought of the sermon. I say that while I agree that there are many situations in law and culture where one is required to betray a promise, at the same time, I think that Matthew 14 is a poor locus for demonstrating the point.
I tell her that I don’t see the New Testament figures, especially the villains, as owning tons of moral agency. Matthew is an account that clearly relies on signs and prophecies from the Old Testament to show the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah. Herod gets it particularly badly from the narration because he has to slaughter all those babies in order to fulfill the prophecies of Jeremiah. Thus the point of the John the Baptist story in Matthew is identifying John as the second apparition of the prophet Elijah — but showing at the same time that John cannot be the Messiah because he dies and is buried. For all this to work out, John has to die and someone has to kill him; the unfortunate Herod draws the short straw. He’s a convenient victim as a Hellenized Jew who’s particularly vulnerable to the kind of criticism that John the Baptist made. Herod’s story is not about his desire for his wife’s daughter, or what the evangelist implies is his sexual rapacity, at all. It’s about what G-d has to make happen in this particular account, in order to save the human race.
I see her frowning at me. Too much historical-critical school thinking here. Narrative theology will get you expelled from sem. Though women can’t go anyway.
Besides, I say, switching tacks, if you want to assign moral agency to Herod, you have to give it to everyone else in the story, too. Loyalty goes both ways. If Salomé had been loyal to Herod, she wouldn’t have asked him for that particular gift.
“I think,” my mother says, “that Salomé’s loyalty was mostly to her mother.”
I wonder, then, where exactly my father is.