As I jerk the car out of the parking lot, Irene watches from the sidewalk, wearing winter clothes despite the heat. Her face beneath her blue bandanna looks rueful.
We should be leaving her tucked in bed, full of my homemade soup, surrounded by my children’s drawings, smiling. As it is, she won’t return to her rent-controlled apartment until we’re out of sight. She never does.
I give my five-year old “the look” in the rear-view mirror. "What?” Forester protests, “So I watched TV? Irene likes TV too.”
“Anton too!” my three year-old echoes. The siblings laugh. I don’t.
Instead, knuckles white on the steering wheel, I launch in, “All I’m asking is that you BE NICE to Irene once a week. Smile. Talk to her. That’s NOT too much to ask."
“Why?” In the mirror, I note my daughter’s upraised eyebrows.
“Why should we be nice?”
A disillusioned Christian, I’m stuck with my own truth.
“Because someday we’ll be dying, and we’ll want someone to be nice to us.”
Forester and I lock eyes. I drop my gaze first.
Irene was the first non-family member to rock my child to sleep. The 70 year old and I shared a knotted intimacy as caretaker and mother. Sometimes we fought through gritted smiles.
Me: "Forester is strong-willed. Don’t let her walk on you. Bedtime 7:30."
Her: "Oh, I like it when she sasses me. You know, she’s still a baby. Babies will be babies. It hurts my heart to hear her crying."
Other times, I noticed signs of Irene’s care in my house and on my children–their clothes refolded (neatly); my son’s hair smoothed back with baby oil; sliced apples with the peels removed–and gratitude towards the older woman settled into my bones.
It wasn’t until she lied to me, though, that Irene earned my respect. After a Christmas break, she called to mention “a mild stroke." Her hearty voice quavered. I called her back, suspicious. Irene admitted by degrees that she’d been diagnosed with advanced brain cancer. Suddenly I saw "my babysitter" more clearly, as someone self-interested, even willing to deceive me–commit that sin of passion–if she thought that’s what it took to keep her with "her babies."
I suggested to Irene it wasn’t safe for her to baby-sit, but that we would visit her. Suddenly, breaking our protocol, Irene said, "I love you, dear." We both knew it wasn’t me she loved, though.
That winter I wore those weekly visits like a good cocoon—an escape from carpools, ballet, play-dates. My kids loved the treats Irene bought just for them. For Valentine’s Day, Irene’s niece gave her a singing doll, a turbaned black woman who looked not unlike Irene post-cancer–all angles, chin, and eyes. We hooted at Anton “shaking his booty” with “Hot Stuff.” We planned to go on day trips ‘soon.’
But the fall fell hectic with me grabbing Irene Dunkin’ Donuts instead of cooking Whole Foods. At Kindergarten, Forester hugged new friends with glee. At Irene’s, under weighty expectations, my love-child turned to stone.
"Forester," I’d insist, "Tell Irene what you learned today." “Nothing,” she’d mutter, hurling herself on Irene’s bed. Irene would pull up a hard chair to watch my sullen daughter watch TV. Seeing Irene’s face slacken with love, I’d grit my teeth against my lectures.
In the second year of Irene’s cancer, we four continued sharing laughs, but a shadow was descending. By the first hint of spring, Irene’s Winter Dream of returning to the park with us in warmer weather was revealed as only that. While my children watched TV, I tried not to check my cell phone. Irene complained about forgetting. For three weeks, she left laundry rotting in the public washer.
When Irene finally showed me X-rays of the cancer cells, which looked like monstrous jelly fish, I held my breath in her stuffy apartment, awaiting a dying woman’s epiphany. Irene looked radiant, but her words were same-old, same-old paradox. She loved God, but didn’t want to leave her babies.
“You told me no one dies until they’re ready,” Forester accused me that day in the car. “I’ll never be. Sorry, but if you and Daddy and Anton and Irene want to die, I’ll just have to get a new family. I don’t want to, but…”
I panicked. “Well, there’s Heaven…”
Forester cut me off. “Heaven! I don’t even know Jesus. I’m not going to live with him.”
In subsequent visits, Forester vented. Irene never ate apples. No wonder she was bald. When Irene moved into a nursing home, Forester–noting mostly women there–clucked, “Irene should hurry up and find a husband to get her out.”
Theological carelessness may foster some resilience.
After Irene’s death, Forester drew a bright picture for Irene of herself in the park, wearing a crown.
“It’s too late to give it to her, honey,” I said gently.
“Oh, it takes them a while to get up there.” Forester shrugged and skipped away from me.
I shuddered thinking of Irene “up there,” seeing my ambivalence. We’d gone to the park instead of visiting her as planned on what turned out to be the very morning of her death. But then I figured, even dead she might not be all-knowing. And if she knew my human weakness…?
She’d been human too. It’s why and how she loved my kids.
At the funeral, Forester’s pragmatism reassured. “Why’d they put her in a dress? Irene never wore dresses. I guess cuz it’s her special day?”
At the reception, neither kid looked traumatized, playing tag with Irene’s grandnieces and grandnephews. I relaxed too, laughing with Irene’s relatives. She’d convinced each and every one of us we were her lifeline to the world.
Get down off your cross ‘cuz we can use the wood. Raised on brimstone and clouds, I’ve always admired this humanist philosophy. Raised on the ground, my daughter–to my horror and hope–lives it.