Ashen Cross


When I first met Bernard I thought, judging from the dark smudge on his forehead, that I had missed Ash Wednesday. And for an instant I found myself in that terrifying world of dementia, an ugly, swirling world of lost moments and strangers with strange voices, a world where my mother had been spending more and more her time. The strong grip of Bernard’s handshake quickly restored my senses and transformed the dark, liturgical blemish into some sort of birthmark with irregular edges.

Bernard dealt in antiquities not antiques, my sister had joked, but antiquities; he worked in the admissions office of Oak Grove Retirement Community helping elderly clients in their transition from independence to assisted living.

He arrived on the front porch of the house in which I grew up and was preparing to sell with a briefcase full of brochures and paperwork. I invited him in and led the way to the sun room in back of the house through a maze of packed boxes and furniture wrapped in stretch film and moving blankets. I made him comfortable and went to the kitchen to pour coffee.

I returned to find Bernard sitting in front of documents neatly spread out on mother’s prized glass-topped table presumably in the order in which they were to be presented. It was a beautiful day and the sun streaming in through the windows reflected brightly off the gloss of an Oak Grove pamphlet.

Bernard tapped lightly on the table’s surface, “In my home country, it is popular with tourists to go for an excursion in a glass-bottomed boat to see the coral reefs and colorful fish without the need for diving.”

I stared through the table and tried to imagine the beauty of Neptune’s aquatic kingdom but could only see a tile floor in desperate need of sweeping. I looked back up at Bernard’s beaming smile as if he was pleased to share a wonder with me.

“This process I know is very difficult but I will help you and your family through it,” he assured me while unfolding some of the community’s literature and sliding it under my nose like a menu.

For many years after my father had died mother continued on with the diurnal routines of the retired: gardening, church, choir, volunteering for charity work. If during this time she had experienced episodes brought about by diminished cognizance it is not certain.

However, one afternoon she drove her Lincoln through the Buchanan’s boxwood hedge and onto the front lawn because she claimed it was the parking lot of her podiatrist’s office. This embarrassing event culminated with a visit to a neurologist who gave us a grim diagnosis.

Once dependent on others for transportation her activities dropped off. My sister and I took turns getting her to church, although a few mornings I would arrive at the house to find her still in bed. And once, on a Friday evening during a routine check-in, I found her waiting by the door dressed in her Sunday best and fuming that we would be late for the processional hymn.

Dick Dillon, organist and choir director, called me at work to say mother was no longer able to read the music on the page and insisted on singing an old show tune.

The worst of it came one night when a frantic message from my sister summonsed me over to mother’s. When I let myself in she called to me from the darkened sun room where she had taken refuge on a chaise lounge. The windows around her were like slabs of slick onyx. She had pulled her sweater around knees like a teenager curled into a ball of insecurity and her eyes were puffy and red. She had raided my stash of beer that I kept in a mini-fridge in the garage and two empty cans were on the floor beside her.

Before I sat down I asked if I needed to get a beer for myself before she told what had happened.

That night, while preparing for bed, mother had spoken to a woman in the bathroom mirror. That woman had told her she was going to die and be judged for terrible sins.

“That’s what mom said,” my sister told me in a quavering voice, ‘she pointed into the mirror and said it just like that.”

She apologized for drinking my beer but that she desperately needed something to soothe her nerves and that the first one tasted so good she had another.

“This is all very natural,” Bernard reassured me while we went over the benefits and amenities of Oak Grove before moving on to the legal documents. “Your mother will have the best of care and be with people of her generation. That will be fun for her. And don’t worry, with the house sold there will be plenty of funds to cover expenses.”

While Bernard spoke and shuffled papers I gazed at his birthmark. I wanted to see it once again as an ashen cross.

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