Heresies of Nature
by Margaret B. Young
[p.97] “We want ocean, don’t we?” Cody put the ocean tape on, then wiped Merry’s brow and temples with a warm cloth. “I’ll bathe you now,” she said, “and you listen to the waves. You can hear God chanting with every ocean breath.” The waves hissed and rolled. “He’s talking to Sarah, saying, ‘Is there anything impossible to the Lord?’” The ocean sounds were muffled drums, rolling, crashing, rolling. “I love Sarah. Don’t you? I was reading about her this morning, reading how she gave her husband a gift. And such a gift! It was God’s gift and Sarah’s. Because Sarah loved Abraham better than anything in the world, and he needed a thing she couldn’t provide.” She unzipped Merry’s dress, washed her back, and then her ribs, never looking at her face. “She loved him so well that she gave him Hagar. And every time Hagar was with Abraham, it was in Sarah’s name. It was for Sarah.” She washed Merry’s breasts now, then took the dress to her waist. “Listen to the waves. The water writes its name on the shore, then erases it again, then writes another name. Listen!”
And at that instant, Cody felt it: Merry was drowning, inside-struggling, pushing dream sounds through paralyzed cells. Cody could hear the sound before Merry mewed it, could sense the force that couldn’t show itself, the vibrations that couldn’t happen except in Merry’s mind. The word, the sound, the whole of Merry’s response was: “NO!”
The waves kept up their cadence, breathed deeply, beat out their rhythm.
Cody was almost crying because Merry was almost crying. “Sorry,” Cody said—and she was so sorry for her. “But I can’t stop it now.” She didn’t speak these words, only thought them. [p.98] She was certain—she knew—that Merry was hearing them anyway. The two women had merged, their thoughts were plain as words on a page. She bent Merry’s rag-doll body to get the hips, then brought her back up as though from the ocean itself. Baptism. She wiped Merry’s neck, but kept her own face averted from those lion eyes. “I can’t stop the waves from writing what they’ll write,” she thought to her. “And neither can you, Merry Morgan. This wasn’t how I imagined things would happen. Not the way I pictured my hands healing you. But you want him happy—you want them all happy—and this is the way.” She brushed the cloth across Merry’s cheeks, wiping those helpless tears. “Listen to the sea,” she said out loud, as though Merry hadn’t been hearing her thoughts. “Be calm, Merry. Light. Love. Peace. Calm.”
Wan and yellow, that was the face that greeted Elizabeth. Penny’s face. Pen’s french braids were half undone as though she had slept in them for a week. There was a mustard stain on her blouse collar. A five-by-seven of Joe sat on top of her television: handsome, eager, a much younger man without his mustache.
“You’ve got Joe’s picture,” Elizabeth managed.
“Old time’s sake.”
“But you left him.”
“So?” Her voice was flat.
“Just seems strange,” she began. “Just seems—.” She let it trail. “Dad’s talking rest homes again. I was wondering, maybe we should check a couple of them out.” She gazed past her sister into the bedroom. The bed was unmade.
When Penny blew her nose, Elizabeth realized she had been crying. “Right now?” Pen said.
“Sure. Now.” She was still looking at the crumpled sheets.
Penny blew her nose again. “Sounds like a riot. I’ll get my [p.99] coat.” She walked past Elizabeth into the bedroom. “I’ll make it later,” she said.
“The bed. I was napping.”
“I thought so.” She almost asked what had made her cry. It was her sisterly duty to inquire, and in times past, she would have. But on this day, she didn’t want the responsibility of knowing. On this day, she was sick to death of other people’s pain. “So, how’re you doing?” she ventured instead, in a tone that begged, don’t answer.
“Fine,” Pen replied, in a tone that obliged.
The first rest home they saw was a former hospital, built in the 1940s. The walls had gold fleur-de-lis wallpaper, peeling in most of the corners. The carpeting was vomit green and pathworn. But the “residents” (not “patients”) seemed happy and at home. Two wheelchair-bound, toothless, bald men greeted the sisters at the door as if that were their official duty.
“Hello, Old Faithful!” said the first. “Who’re you here to see?” He spread his lips over his gums and blinked happily.
“Just looking,” Pen said, as though this were a fashion shop. Or a zoo.
“Just looking?” echoed the second man.
“Our mother has m.s.,” said Elizabeth.
“Oh,” said the first. “She’d love it here. How close to dead?”
The sisters stared till he laughed like a wheezing horse. “How bad is it?” he asked more seriously. “Her sickness.”
“Bad enough.” Penny side-stepped past him.
It seemed a homey place, though old and ugly.
The second home was called South Beach Haven. Outside were twenty-eight plastic flamingos, pink as Easter candy, standing as though frozen on the yellow lawn, impossibly balanced on skinny wire legs. Inside was the smell of urine, flowery room freshener, and isopropyl alcohol. South Beach Haven [p.100] was new, equipped with a peach-tone lobby and silk ficus trees. The rooms all had shrimp-pink designer drapes and bed covers. Alzheimer patients limped down the halls as though they were trying to find their way home. One woman yipped from her room, “Help me! Help me!”
“I like the old one,” Elizabeth said as they drove home.
“You’re kidding,” said Penny. “Mom deserves the best. I like South Beach Haven. All those birds with their big heavy bodies and teensy, wire legs. Paralyzed flamingos. Most blatant symbol I’ve ever seen.”
“Okay.” It didn’t seem right to counter.
Elizabeth did invite her sister inside when they got home, but Penny, clinging to the steering wheel, shook her head.
“Mom would love to see you,” Elizabeth urged.
“Not just now.”
Elizabeth started to speak several times before managing a thin, “Penny?”
Even thinner: “Are you all right?”
“Don’t I look all right?” More dare than question.
“You look fine. But—what’s going on with you?”
“I’m fine. Need to get home. Tell Mom I like South Beach Haven.” She stared at her keys.
“Any messages for Joe? I see him every day in class.”
“You sure you’re all right?”
Now Pen showed how eyes could ice. She drew a deep, angry breath through her nose, letting it out like cigarette smoke.
Elizabeth went inside. She told Merry she had been with Pen but didn’t mention where they had gone. Merry’s eyes knew anyway.
She must feel like a corn husk, Elizabeth thought, and we’re getting ready to shuck her off.
[p.101] When Merry choked again two days later—on the old standby yogurt because a strawberry had been inadequately mashed—Ben said, as though she weren’t present, that it was time. She would have to go to a home. Otherwise, someone might accidentally kill her and overdose on guilt.
Merry, head held up by a green towel and supported by the wheelchair’s neck brace, looked straight ahead as Elizabeth wheeled her into the Ocean Room.
“You don’t need to, Mom. Dad’s just tense,” she said, wheeling her up to the tank. A royal gramma swished itself to the glass, its mouth pulsing open-shut like a series of kisses. Merry’s eyes, huge as gold coins behind her glasses, went to it.
Elizabeth turned on the ocean tape. The waves sounded like heavy respiration to her: long breaths exhaled every five seconds and pulled back in the muffled undertow.
“You remember the mantas, Mom?”
“I keep seeing them. Whenever I think of California.”
“You think these guys here,” gesturing to the tank, “think they miss the ocean as much as you do?”
Merry lifted her brows, which meant a shrug.
“Of course, they were maybe born in the tanks. Think so?”
They listened to the aquarium whir and the ocean’s loud breaths.
“Joe’s a good teacher. You’d be proud of him. And the kids like him—tolerate him, anyway. I know I do. Like him. Really.”
Merry moaned to spell. Elizabeth went down the alphabet to decipher the words, “I’ll miss you.”
Elizabeth shut her eyes. “You don’t have to go. It doesn’t have to be that way. Unless you want. Do you want to go?”
She blinked firmly.
[p.102] Both the grandmas, Boswell and Morgan, came three days later at Ben’s request. He wanted them to be in on the decision of which home Merry should spend the rest of her life in.
November 21, 1984
Picked out a wheelchair today.
Things are okay. I won’t need it all the time, just when I’m especially tired.
Like right now. Sorry, I can’t write anymore today.
Elaine Boswell and Vera Morgan had been good friends once. They had been mortified together and then chatted and joked for three hours straight during the no-show wedding reception and had taken themselves afterwards on a day-long shopping spree. They looked like friends, too, though Elaine Boswell was a slim, copper-headed Californian and Vera Morgan a portly, blue-haired Utahn with a powdery face and too much rouge. When they arrived, both were wearing navy blue suits—Elaine’s a size eight, Vera’s an eighteen.
After supper, a family council was held. The subject: rest homes and money. Merry, knowing the discussion was scheduled, chose not to be present. Cody wheeled her into the Ocean Room and turned up the volume on the sea sounds. The door was open so the family could see her, though for all practical purposes she was set apart, watching her fish.
[p.103] “I don’t find any need to waste money on luxury Merry won’t care about anyway,” Vera Morgan said, thus opening the council before prayer. “Merry needs a clean room and a good staff, but why silk plants and flamingos?”
“Twenty-seven flamingos?” Elaine Boswell asked.
Janny answered. “Twenty-eight, Grandma. With wire legs.”
“Sounds like kitsch to me,” said Vera.
“How much is this going to cost?” Penny asked no one in particular.
Elaine Boswell’s voice was energized and brittle. “We’re not throwing Merry away. We’re not looking for a nice garbage bin. It’s—”
“Of course, we’re not throwing her away,” said Vera. “Who said that? No one said that. But we don’t need to throw money away either.” Vera’s voice was close to a whisper now, though it was clear Merry wasn’t hearing anything but ocean.
“Just what are your priorities, Vera?”
“Elaine, let me finish. I see no need for us to pretend this is Merry’s cruise to the Bahamas. This whole thing is too tragic for words. But the cost—she could be in this rest home for years. Merry understands that.” She wiped her suddenly teary eyes, then moved them towards Merry. “We have no way of knowing how long …,” she began, but her voice broke. “I’m sorry. I thought I could do this, but I really can’t. My head—. Let me just take a little time out. I’ll be back.” Wiping her eyes, she left.
“My head aches, too,” murmured Elaine, “but that doesn’t mean I’m abandoning the situation.”
“Dad?” said Penny. “How much?”
Ben put his fork down. “Money is an issue. I wish it weren’t. We’ve talked about it, Merry and I have.”
“Would you mind calling her ‘Mom’?” said Jan.
“Mom and I have talked about it,” Ben amended himself. “What it comes down to is, she does deserve the best, but we [p.104] can’t afford either home, not on what I make, not if we’re going to live above the poverty line.”
“What about Medicaid?” Penny offered.
“We’ve discussed it. I—she didn’t work long enough to earn social security. A room at either home would cost close to $3,000 a month. If we were to take that money out of my salary now, you girls would be—your mother doesn’t want that.”
“Jan and I could get jobs,” Elizabeth offered.
“And good grades?” said Ben.
“Can you understand how painful it would be for your mom to live off you? No, that’s not the answer.”
“What is the answer?” asked Penny solemnly.
“Medicaid could pay, but only—I’m sorry—if Merry is single.”
Elaine paled. “What are you suggesting?”
Ben lowered his head to his hands. “I love Merry,” he breathed into his palms. “You know that. I’d never want to—. But we have to be practical. We have to think of her. And the girls. Merry and I don’t feel it’s right we deprive them of—”
“Are you saying—?” Elaine interrupted. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying? You want to divorce my daughter?” There was a stunned space around each word. When the question was out, silence mushroomed. Only Merry in the other room, serene before her aquarium, looked unaffected.
Ben rubbed his forehead. It was a frantic gesture, as though he were itching his conscience. “Merry and I have already discussed it. Last night. I know it’s painful.” He shot a dead glance at his wife.
Stiffening, Elaine Boswell looked as though she could rise to the ceiling on her righteous breath.
Jan spoke then. “If Mom wants to go to a rest home, it’s just so Cody will leave! That’s the only reason! This is Mom’s way of getting Cody out!”
“You don’t know what Mom wants,” Ben said.
[p.105] “Oh, that’s right.” Janny’s mouth was thin wire, words clipped. “Only Cody’s allowed in Mom’s mind!”
Now it was Elaine’s turn: “Just what is it you want your daughters to learn, Ben? That marriage vows are only in effect as long as they’re convenient? That the latest fashion is more important than their mother’s care?”
“Don’t you know?” Ben whispered fiercely. “Don’t you see what’s happening? The girls already resent her—consciously or not.”
Jan stood in mute defiance.
“They resent having to mother her just at the time THEY need a mother. They need space, Elaine. They need some open space!” He slapped the table; the plates jumped and clattered. When Merry’s magnified eyes moved up and strained sideways to see him, he went to her, kissed her forehead, then closed the Ocean Room door behind him. The sea sounds quit.
“What if Merry were to die here when one of them was caring for her,” he whispered earnestly, sitting. “Do you know the effect that could have? Can you imagine the guilt? They need space—space so they can love her and not be so wrapped up in the gross details of this damned disease!” His eyes apologized to the door separating him from his wife. “They’re like gnats caught in a web here,” he muttered. “And Merry understands that whether you do or not. Merry knows her daughters need release.”
No one spoke.
“And so do you,” Elaine cooed at last. “Sexual release. That’s what this whole idea is really about.”
Ben made a repulsed frown. “No, that’s not what this whole idea’s about. This whole idea is about the fact that she’s choking on her food nearly every day now. And we don’t have the equipment to take care of her. Not here, not now!”
Silence blossomed again until Janny peeped, holding back a cry, “Daddy, you’re not going to divorce her. Are you?”
Ben cradled his face in his hands again.
[p.106] “Merry told me to be nice,” said Elaine in a dry monotone, “so I’ll ask this nicely. Do you have her replacement picked out? I’m just curious.”
“Do you, Daddy?” Jan asked.
“Look,” he said, glancing at each of his daughters, then lifting his eyes beyond them. “I’ve known I’d have to find another wife since the day we bought Merry her first wheelchair. I’ve known I’d have to choose another mother for my children. For nearly ten years, I’ve had that somewhere in my mind.”
“And have you found her—this ‘other mother’?” Elaine asked.
He gunned her with a glare. “Is it any of your business?”
Her face went hard. She did not answer.
“Daddy?” Jan’s voice was amazed. “Daddy?”
“Honey,” he said, “there are some things you can’t understand yet.”
“You think I don’t? You think I haven’t figured that out? You think I’m so innocent?” With that, she ran into the Ocean Room, Elizabeth and Penny following just behind. Only Elaine Boswell and Ben Morgan were left at the table.
“Merry can live with me,” Elaine offered softly.
“You know that’s not a possibility. Not with Frank the way he is,” said Ben. “And you don’t have any more equipment than we do.”
She tilted her head back and examined the ceiling in a gesture which seemed to him like a sinking ship raising its hull. “You’re abandoning her,” she said without emotion. Her words were flat and straight. She was impaling his soul on a butter knife. “I always knew you would.”
He matched her tone. “You’ve never believed I loved her.”
“I know you loved her,” she said, still staring at the ceiling. “You took good care of her for a long time.”
“I know you did. And I know it wasn’t easy. I guess I should be thanking you, hmmm?”
[p.107] “You’re welcome.”
“But I did, I always knew you’d leave her.”
Ben sighed. “Elaine, you have no idea what we’ve been through. My wife and I—”
“She was my daughter before she was your wife, you know.” The words were not angry. They were quiet and hurt.
“I haven’t stopped loving her. Merry and I made this decision together.”
“Did you? And I’m sure she had a big vote on whether she’d get taken out with the trash or the old newspapers.” She returned her eyes to him, shaking her head. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that.”
“Yes, you did.” He wasn’t sure where his anger was coming from or where it was really aimed. “You’ve always been my harshest judge. You really ought to be a little understanding, though—you of all people. Don’t you leave Frank pretty freely? You just turn him over to someone else for a week, isn’t that right?”
She made a sour smile and kept her voice low. “That’s a pretty lousy thing to say, dear. The circumstances are not quite comparable. I would never hurt my husband.”
“You think I’d hurt my wife if it weren’t—”
“I saw you, dear,” she whispered.” Her fake lashes suddenly appeared bonded by shiny glue. Tears.
“A few years ago.” She gazed once more at the ceiling. He saw that her upward focus was meant to keep tears from spilling down her cheeks and spoiling her face powder. With her head tilted like that, the tears moved directly from her eye corners to her temples, and she wiped them away before they met her hairline. “You were carrying her into the bathroom and you hit her head on the wall.”
“Not on purpose,” he sighed.
“No, but when she moaned, you yelled at her. You said, ‘What!’ like everything was her fault.”
[p.108] “I don’t remember doing that. If I did, I’m sorry.”
“Oh, you did.” She wiped her temples, forced a grim smile. “And that was the moment I knew. I went home and I said to Frank, ‘That boy won’t be finishing the game.’”
“I don’t blame Merry for anything.”
“I guess the truth is, I’ve never gotten over watching you hurt my baby.” She offered another “so sorry” smile. “Well, I’m afraid I’m getting sour. Bad habit. And I’m getting a migraine. Just like your mother. Seems the thing to do. You’ll excuse me, won’t you?”
“Sure,” he said, and let her go.