Coffee with Mom
My husband drops me off at the coffee shop before work since he doesn’t believe in eating anything until noon. From there I usually walk to school, but today I’m taking Mother to the dentist, which means breakfast at the coffee shop, and lunch at the cafe down the street, and half a day off work. Mother could drive herself to the dentist, but she won’t go unless I drag her. I worry about tooth infections that may cause heart trouble if they’re not treated. My husband says I read too many health articles, but Mother makes me worried in general.
When I kiss my husband and step out of the car, I unfold my cane and Mother grabs my arm.
“Gently,” I say. “You don’t have to cut off the circulation.”
“What?” she says. I detach her hand from my upper arm, and rest it on my elbow.
“Oh,” she says. “Sorry. I forget.”
Mother needs hearing aids, but says they’re too expensive. This morning when we arrived at her condo, the radio was blaring so loud in the kitchen it hurt my ears. I hope it doesn’t bother the neighbors. Mother smiled in her strained way and said it was good to see me, then put a vise grip on my wrist.
In the coffee shop I ruffle in my purse for my wallet, but Mother says she can pay. “This should be my treat since you’re taking the morning off.”
I nod. There’s a hard, stiff business card nestled between receipts for the previous days’ muffins. Last week I saw my gynecologist, who suggested a fertility specialist. I’m thirty-eight and still no kids. My husband and I decided we would do this the natural way, but the gynecologist has asked if I’d consider having a baby in less natural ways. While there’s still time. Nothing like having a ticking clock put on your uterus. We could attempt childbirth with test tubes, but I’m pushing forty with a bulldozer and have kids at school to care about, ones who tell me about their moms and dads and brothers and sisters–good stuff and bad—and ones who go home to empty houses.
I take those kids home with me whether I want to or not, think about what I should have said to them, what I can say next time.
“Your body, your decision,” my husband said after I told him about the gynecologist .
“We could adopt,” I said.
“We could,” he said.
Is our hesitant desire because we worry that in twelve years, when we smack into our fifties, we’ll miss the family we didn’t have? But I’ll always have kids at school. I take them out to lunch at McDonald’s because it’s two blocks away, in the opposite direction as the coffee shop. They love it. They relax. They giggle.
“Are lemon poppyseed muffins okay?” asks Mother. I nod. They’re not my favorite, but they’re in the day-old basket. I’ll be back to blueberry tomorrow. We sit down to wait for our drink order, and I let her get the cardboard cups from the counter.
“So you don’t have to worry about spilling,” she says, though I’m here every day and they put lids on hot drinks. I also don’t usually need the cane, my vision is good enough that I’m fine if it isn’t crowded, but when I don’t use the cane it makes Mother antsy. She wants everyone to see that I can’t see as well as they assume. I’m blind in one eye and have a partially detached retina in the other, which happened after I was born two months premature. I can see shapes and colors but can’t read text unless it’s huge. After thirty-eight years, I’m used to this.
When Mother brings our drinks, she sets mine on the table and pushes it gently toward my hand so it grazes my fingers.
“Thanks,” I say as she peels the paper off my muffin.
“How are the kids?” my mother asks. For a moment I think she says, So you’re not going to have kids?
“They’re good,” I say. “Nothing too traumatic lately.”
She nods. My younger sister has two children and lives three states away. I’m not sure about the state of Mother’s teeth, but she doesn’t like spending money on her body. I think this is why she avoids doctors. That and the fear of being told something is wrong. I’ve always known something was wrong with my body, or maybe not wrong but different, which is why I have my cane, and screen readers that narrate text on my computer, and a pen that is both a camera and a recorder, so I can take notes as my kids talk, and play the recording back later. When I touch a word on my note pad, the recording jumps to that part of the conversation. The technology would make me an excellent spy. Just stick me in Paris, a mild-mannered woman with a cane sitting in coffee shops. But I don’t think many spies have kids for work-related reasons.
Mother touches her cheek.
“Tooth sensitivity?” I ask.
She shakes her head. “When was your last eye appointment?”
“Six months ago. I’m mostly stable.”
I shrug. “I’m getting older and developing a cataract.”
Mother crumbles her muffin.
“Not hungry?” I say.
“It’s good,” she says, stuffing a few pieces in her mouth. “You’re so young to be developing a cataract.”
Thank you for reminding me, I think. “Since my one eye has been seeing for two my whole life, the extra wear has taken a toll. We could get a bag for your muffin if you’d rather eat it later.”
“I’m fine,” Mother says.
Since she never tells me what might be wrong, I’ve come to think everything is wrong. Mother might be having this pain, that numbness, and waiting it out. When I was little I could never wait it out. My sighted eye was like a time bomb, something could always go wrong and I had to tell an adult right away if there were problems with my vision.
I down the rest of my coffee and stand to take my empty plate and cup to the bussing station. When I return, Mother has her hand over her mouth.
“I do wish you’d take your cane,” she mutters.
“When was the last time you had a doctor’s appointment?” I say. “I thought you were supposed to get yearly cholesterol and blood pressure screenings.”
“The dentist is enough for today,” she says.
“I’m just saying you should call,” I say.
“I can call,” she says.
“We can make an appointment at lunch, and I’ll schedule another half day off to take you there,” I say. “When is the last time you had a mammogram?”
“I can call,” she says again.
“At lunch,” I say.
“Maybe not today,” she says.
“I might as well get it on my calendar. Are you finished eating?”
She nods though half her muffin remains. Mother takes her cup and plate to the trash while I grab my cane from where it has been leaning against the wall. Mother returns and grips my arm.
“When will you need cataract surgery? Should you be walking to work?”
“It’s a few blocksblock, Mother,” I say. “And I have the cane.”
“When you remember to use it.”
“I know when to use it.”
“Remember to look both ways eight times before you cross the street,” she says.
“Mother,” I say, the word coming out so sharp it sounds like an expletive. This is the caution I have heard since I was five years old. Doesn’t she think I have it memorized by now?
“I just worry.” Her words are loud enough so I am sure other people turn their heads.
We stand beside the table glaring at each other. I imagine her gaze is as hard as mine, but in this moment we are five and thirty-five, we are thirty-eight and sixty-eight, we are brutally loving and protective and scared of bodies we cherish and know can break.
“You taught me well,” I say quietly. “I look both ways eight times.”
“I know,” she says and rests her hand on my forearm.
“This way,” I say when we leave the coffee shop. Mother wants to tow me right, but we have to go left.
“Of course,” she says as we stride toward the crosswalk and pause at the red light. We hold our elbows back, arms careful and rigid, keeping the other person a safe distance from the curb.
About the Author
Teresa Milbrodt is the author of three short story collections: Instances of Head-Switching, Bearded Women: Stories, and Work Opportunities. She has also published a novel, The Patron Saint of Unattractive People, and a flash fiction collection, Larissa Takes Flight: Stories. Her fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in numerous literary magazines.
Read Teresa Milbrodt’s other fiction, “Scouting the Dragon,” in this issue of Wordgathering.