But the wetness was making her unhappy. Like a snail trapped in sunlight, say ? anxious to get away from an element that caused pain. I went from kneeling to half bending over. I placed my shoulders against her shoulders, careful not to put any weight on her. I leaned in like a football player on a tackle and then lifted up. She was both lighter and heavier than I'd expected.
I got her to standing with ease, but once she was upright, she collapsed in my arms. It was all I could do not to drop her, bringing both of us to the ground. As I adapted to the balance of holding her full weight, I could not help but think of my father, how year after year he carried the burden of her, apologized to the neighbors, dried her copious tears, and how this body had folded into his over and over again like so much batter until the two of them became one.
I felt like weeping myself then. We were near the end of us and of the secrets of the house. I was forty-nine and my mother was eighty-eight. My father had been dead for almost the entire lifetime of my younger child ? a few months after she'd turned four. Sarah could never know the full measure of his sweetness, or play in the workshop among his thrice-glued carpentry. I thought of the mutant rocking horses rotting in the shed, and my arms, with my mother in them, weakened dangerously. How the house and my life had changed after his death.
I dragged my mother, with her trying, I could feel, to help, over to the staircase leading up to her bath. I questioned my sanity. How, I wondered, did I think this feat was possible? She had to weigh at least a hundred pounds, and despite my midlife fitness regime, I had never lifted more than sixty. It was not going to work. I collapsed onto the stairs, with my mother soiled and damp on top of me.
I panted on the carpeted steps but did not give up. I was determined to clean my mother and to dress her in fresh clothes before I called the ambulance. As we lay there and her weight grew familiar, like the strange feeling of being pinned by a dozing lover, I thought of the alternatives. I could bring her to the bathroom in the back and try to wash her from the sink. There was also the kitchen. But where would I prop her up? How to hold her and wash her at the same time, not to mention the mess of water all over the floor and the potential for slipping and cracking both our skulls.
My mother began to snore. Her head tilted back over my shoulder so that I could see her ancient mottled face and neck. I looked at her cheekbones, as sharp as they had always been ? almost painful now in her cadaverous flesh. Who will love me? I thought, and then banished this question by looking out at the birch leaves in the fading sunlight. I had been there all day. I hadn't even called to cancel at Westmore. I saw the empty space on the platform in Life Drawing 101 and the students, at their easels, staring at my absence, the useless charcoal in their hands.
I knew that if I did not move, my mother might sleep for hours, and darkness would come. I pictured my friend Natalie looking for me in the halls of the art building, vainly querying the students in class. Natalie would call my house ? perhaps drive over alone or with Hamish, her son. The doorbell would ring in the empty house, and then Natalie would imagine that something must have happened to me or to Sarah or to Emily.