Instructions (by Fiona Writes)
He feels for the square of paper folded neatly in his pocket as he climbs the well-worn gray cement steps and opens the rickety screen door.
Mom, are you in here?
He pushes through the door and down the long narrow hallway. The TV is on in the den and the window open. He knows these things before he sees them, feeling the waft of fresh air and hearing the background chatter that meets him in the hallway. As he places the small bag of groceries and toiletries on the counter, he sees that the scene he imagined in the hallway is spot on: his mom in her pajamas, sitting in front of the TV while some perky weather person or talk show host prattles on, the window open just a crack as sunshine struggles through the semi-sheer curtains to reach the corners of the dusty room.
Did you remember that I would be here today?
She looks up at him and smiles, gives him a half wave, and then grows distracted by the TV. He reaches into his pocket to unfold the square of paper. In his sister’s neat handwriting, he scans the list of chores:
Make sure you empty the trash! (Not only the one in the kitchen, the one in the bathroom gets really smelly.)
Moving on, he thinks.
Help mom change her clothes.
Oh, fun, he sighs.
Put the laundry bag out for the service.
Make lunch. (Don’t mention Nicky while you eat – if she starts calling for him again, you’ll never get her back on track.)
Put the leftovers in the fridge for dinner…
And on it goes. He looks up to see his mom lost in thought, wondering what goes on inside her head.
How are you doing today, mom? The sun is out. Should we go for a walk?
She smiles up at him again and he wonders, in this moment, who she sees.
Let’s get you dressed. I’ll pick something out and you can put it on, okay?
She half nods as he goes into the tiny bedroom to find something appropriate for the weather: slacks, a sweater, and the sturdy shoes that, just a few years ago, she wouldn’t be seen wearing in public.
Come on, mom. You get dressed and I’ll take out the garbage. Then we can go for a walk.
The instructions his sister had written for him are almost always the same: small chores that keep the apartment neat but not safe, address the basics but not the tough questions, never advice about what to do with the elephant in the room. His mom rises from her chair and heads toward the pile of clothing on the sofa.
Look at you, Johnny. Taking out the trash without being told. Let’s go for a walk. It’s a beautiful day. If you grab Nicky’s leash we can take him with us.
There is a spring in her step as she looks forward to an outing on a sunny day with her young son and their dog. Who is he to tell her the dog is long gone and her now grown son mourns both the family pet and the mom who slips away from him a little more each day.
Let’s leave Nicky to sleep, Mom. I want you all to myself today.