I needed a sign that we weren’t crazy the morning I moved Ali to Campus Village. I had to smile when I drew Surrender: no word better described what I needed to do that day. I can’t say I’ve never looked back, but in the months since, I’ve questioned our decision exactly once.
Back up to the Friday before Christmas. Ali and I are meeting at Dr. Robbins’ office for Ali’s six-month cleaning. I arrive first and wait in the car, keeping an eye out for Ali and Dez in the van. At noon I shoot Ali a text.
I’m here u guys close?
Five minutes pass.
Getting her teeth cleaned is about the worst thing you can put on Ali’s calendar. “Please ask for a Friday,” she’d told me when I scheduled the appointment: no classes, less stress and, thinking about it in the parking lot, no excuse for running late. I text her again.
When will u b here?
Two years ago Ali told her physician what it’s like to get her teeth cleaned: “I can’t control my muscles so I bite the instruments. I have a hard time holding my mouth open the way they need me to. They use this thing to help me but it hurts. Sometimes I gag.” All of it made her anxious, she said, “really, really, really anxious.” She left Dr. Thompson’s office with a prescription for Ativan.
Waiting in the parking lot, wondering just how late “latr” meant, I start thinking about that Ativan. I ride the elevator to the third floor and start apologizing. “Don’t worry about it,” Dr. Robbins says. She’s the guardian of a fifty-year-old sister with disabilities. We’ve shared a lot of stories through the years. “Maybe Ali’s having a hard day,” she offers before going back to her patient. “Life isn’t easy for these girls. We’ll do what we can when Ali gets here, and if she’s not up for the cleaning today, that’s ok, too.” I look at the clock and check my phone, jealous of the equanimity of the dentist who’s being stood up.
At 12:45 I spot Ali through the window, inching toward the door. A snail moves faster. She’s slumped forward, tilted to one side, barely managing to drive, looking like she’s just polished off a six-pack. She makes eye contact in this blank, unfocused way—do I know you?—then follows the hygienist to the cubicle. Forty-five minutes later, I go back to check on things. Ali’s wearing a neck pillow, the kind that helps us sleep on planes. Other than eyes at half-mast, there’s not one animated feature on that beautiful face.
“The last time I saw you this out of it, Cat,” I say, “you were five years old and in the hospital, sicker than a dog.”
“If it makes you feel any better,” says Jody, forever upbeat, “this was the best cleaning we’ve ever had. Ali slept through the whole thing. I was able to get in there and really clean those back teeth. No cavities but you might want to up the brushing; her teeth weren’t as clean as they usually are.”
“Other people do the brushing now,” I say, more to myself than to Jody and, under my breath, other people help her take the Ativan, oversee her diet and keep her safe. I’ve been granted leave, or did I take it and run?
To call Ali’s move an adjustment for her mother is like calling a tsunami a bad storm. I’d lost the ability to see the attendant’s car parked across the street and know Ali had support if she needed it. No walking over with oranges and avocados after a Costco run or popping in to hang on a Sunday afternoon. I would lie in bed at night feeling unsettled, unmoored, disoriented. I had the uneasy sensation that someone had gone missing. And in the midst of a persistent longing for reassurance that things were just fine in that studio apartment, the super-ego would step in and attempt to bury me with shame: You’re not doing your job.
We leave the dental office and wait at the elevator. I look at my groggy daughter slumped in her chair. “Sometimes I think you need to live with me again, Ali,” I say as the doors open. She shoots me the stink eye. I step in and hold the button while she bumps over the metal threshold.
As if the teeth cleaning hadn’t been enough for one day, the motor on Ali’s power chair unexplainably dies that night. I arrive the next day with her manual chair, stored behind the fish tank in my laundry room. I punch the security code outside her apartment and wait while the automatic door opens. Ali looks up from her desk at the far end of the room, glances at the manual, then back at her laptop. The television is on. The lights are off. She’s alone.
I turn on the kitchen light, park the chair and sit on the corner of the coffee table, facing my grown child. I pick up the remote that had fallen to the floor and hit the mute button. She looks tired.
“I called the wheelchair place this morning,” she tells me. “They charge fifty dollars to bring a loaner on a Saturday so I said no.” I would have sprung for the fifty in a heartbeat but I keep my mouth shut. Ali is adamant about making her own decisions, managing her money and, in all ways, getting out from under me managing her life. That’s what this move was about, remember?
“Ali, how many Ativan did you take yesterday?” She holds up three fingers.
“Three?!!” My god. My eyes roll. I can’t help it. Fully clothed, she weighs no more than 90 pounds.
“Dr. Thompson said up to four,” she types in self-defense.
I let it go. We hang out for awhile. I do most of the talking. She’s not herself. There’s no chatter outside her door, no lights in the rooms across the way, no students in the courtyard. The first week of winter break. The place is a ghost town.
“You know,” I say, “you don’t need to wait until Christmas to come home. You can come anytime. And you could stay longer than just two nights.”
She shakes her head. No. We talk about the wheelchair and how sucky it is that the motor died. I talk about the plans for Christmas, the food, tell her Tess and Pierce are coming, and Tess’s boyfriend, and their dog. Finally she smiles, then looks at me and waves.
“You’re ready for me to leave?” I ask, smiling now too.
My mother often commented how lucky I was that Ali knew how to entertain herself. I look around the apartment, do a mental check. Phone, laptop and remote are within reach. I’ve helped her use the bathroom. She wants nothing to eat or drink. Toya will be here in half an hour to spend the evening. I bend down, work my arms between her back and the chair and give her a hug. “You feel smaller, Cat.” I nuzzle her neck, soaking up her scent before planting a kiss on her forehead. I walk the length of the apartment and press the metal pad on the wall. One last goodbye and I step into the cold, waiting for the door to close, listening for the click of the automatic lock. I give my pass to the student at the front desk, wish him a Merry Christmas and walk to my car.
I drive home in dark and cold December, noticing that the urge to make things better never goes away. Of course there’s the walking and talking urge, but tonight it’s the little things that present themselves from the list of Things I Would Change If I Could, starting with the ability to hold her mouth open for the dentist. If Ali wants that too—if she even thinks about it—she doesn’t say, not any more, not to me anyway. Her determination to separate and to live life on her terms exceeds anything I dreamed possible during her childhood. I’d thought for years that the willfulness I bumped up against as her parent might also give her a shot at independence some day, but I had no idea if she—or I—would muster the courage to actually do it, and if we did, I had no idea what it would look like. And yet, here we are. I find it all quite remarkable.
Ali calls one night last week. “I’ll make this quick,” she says. “I’m happy here and want to live here for another year. They asked me if I’m coming back. Are you ok with me living here next year? Are you ok with me saying yes?”
“Absolutely not!” I tease, exaggerating every word. “You must come home and live with your mother!!!”
She squeals into the phone. I hear the giggle and picture that smile. “I’m happy here.” The magic word and she knows it.
I put her on speaker, finish making dinner and eat while we catch up. We talk for an hour. There are long pauses in the conversation while she types. Her baby-like coos accompany the digitized voice as she forms her thoughts. I think back to her moving day, to the hours I spent cleaning the apartment, telling myself she’d be ok, safe, happy. I rounded the corner onto Newport Street at dusk that night. No van in the carport at 1624, no light in the window. An eerie, ghost-like quality hung over the neighborhood. I walked upstairs, stepped into my office and noticed the angel card I had pulled that morning, balanced on the rim of the pinch pot. I put it back in the stack, shuffled the sticks with my fingers and drew another card… not Love, not Truth, Forgiveness or Grace. No, I drew the only synonym for Surrender in the pile: I drew Release.
“So, you’re ok with me staying for another year?” Ali asks one more time before hanging up.
“I’m ok with it, Cat. Let’s sign the lease.”