Kim grew up in Atherton and attended Menlo-Atherton High School before going to Dartmouth College. She returned home to attend Stanford where she earned a Masters in the Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Program. After a fun stint as an intern for the Palo Alto Weekly, Kim began her career in advertising and marketing and co-founded several agencies. Later, she raised her kids on the Peninsula. Today, she and her husband, John Moragne, live in Atherton and their grown children live in San Francisco. They are grateful to be Sheltering in Place in such a dynamic, beautiful community.
My story, Mother's Favorite, was inspired by a difficult period when my family was caring for our terminally-ill mother. In general, we managed to stay on the same page regarding her care. But what if we had not agreed? This story explores a scenario where family members differ in their ability to accept the impending death of a loved one. In particular, two siblings vie for their mother's attention in the final days of her life and she discovers a way to unite them as a parting gift.
Liz should have been grateful for her brother's help, but Ned's presence was a constant aggravation, an itchy wool sweater on a too-warm winter day. She'd been trying to get their seventy-year-old mother to eat more, but each time she carried in a tray of carefully prepared food, Joanie raised her palm in the international gesture for HALT. Yet today, after Ned breezed in from a weekend away—he'd been invited to play in a swanky tennis tournament in Wine Country—her mother developed a sudden appetite. A renewed desire to be compliant. When he brought in a bowl of tomato basil soup and lifted a full spoon to her gaunt face, her jaw dropped open like a Christmas nutcracker.
Although Ned was two years older and half a foot taller, Liz had never truly looked up to him. Born with an embarrassment of riches—a quick brain, a grin that made otherwise smart girls say stupid things, and the hand-eye coordination of a professional jock—Ned had squandered his gifts in a manner that was unfathomable to her. In high school, he had the long, dirty-blond hair and blazing two-handed backhand that reminded coaches of Bjorn Borg, the Swedish tennis phenom. But by senior year, he'd slipped down the tennis team ladder and was relegated to doubles matches due to so many skipped practices and missed games. He'd bailed on classes, too, taking off for the beach with fellow underachievers to skimboard along the foggy San Mateo coast. Or to get stoned in local state parks that were rarely patrolled. All these years later, Ned was an assistant tennis pro at a second-rate country club in San Diego. He was forty-five and he'd never married, never had children. He'd never wanted the very things that tugged Liz from sleep each morning, eager to meet the day.
After their mother had finished her soup and cheerfully consented to a cookie and cup of tea, Ned ambled into the kitchen and scooped up his car keys.
"I'm headed to Starbucks for a Chai Latte. Want anything?"
"Not for me," Liz said, drying her hands on a dish towel. She wondered how long he would be MIA. An hour? All afternoon? "But if you could swing by the pharmacy, Mom needs more lotion and eye drops." The oral tablets from her drug trial had a multitude of side effects, including itchy skin and dry eyes.
When Ned was gone, Liz returned to her mother's room, bent on getting her up. Slumped against her pillows next to the morning paper, Joanie looked disinclined to move an inch.
"You don't want bed sores, do you?" Liz asked. She shook her head, remaining mute as Liz lifted the nightie over her head and helped her into some faded, velour sweats. They didn't bother with a bra or panties; her mother rarely left the house anymore except to see Dr. Jacobs, the oncologist. Last week, Joanie's visit to the hospital had been an ordeal, making her cross and on the verge of tears.
Liz rolled the walker to the bedside and Joanie heaved herself up to a standing position, squeezing the hand grips and grunting with exertion.
"Good job," she chirped, the ubiquitous compliment she used now, just as she had when Ben and Jamie were tots, learning to master the potty and brush their teeth. She directed her mother down the hall and shadowed her closely, ready to catch her the instant she tilted off balance. Her spirits dipped as she noticed that Joanie had lost more weight. The way her sweats slipped below her hips and sagged called to mind rappers who stormed the stage wearing pants that slinked halfway down their asses. It was a look her mother despised.
Hunching forward, Joanie shuffled past Arnie's den where he waved from his cluttered desk, a pained smile stretching across his broad, creased face. Her father, like her brother, had proven to be utterly incapable of pushing their favorite patient to stay strong. Instead, he holed up in his office for hours at a time, ostensibly managing her medical paperwork.
They forged on. After making two, snail-paced laps around the kitchen island, her mother stopped to rest, fingering her auburn and gray hair away from her eyes and panting softly. A black crow called outside the window and she lifted her chin to witness the last of the gold and crimson leaves of autumn.
"Can we go back now?" she asked.
Liz hesitated, determined to keep her moving, but softened when she spotted the grim set of her mother's mouth. "Okay," she sighed, waving her forward. "After you."
As Joanie resettled on the edge of her bed, Liz returned the walker to the closet and picked up a small, two-pound dumbbell coated in bright pink neoprene. If nothing else, her
mother liked the color. She pressed the weight into Joanie's curled fingers and instructed her to raise it above her head. Lifting it as far as her nose, Joanie froze when they heard footsteps in the hallway. Liz glanced up to see her mother's oncologist, Dr. Emma Jacobs, standing in the doorframe, her dad lingering just behind her shoulder. The doctor made house calls? How kind of her. How charmingly old-school.
"What are you doing?" Dr. Emma asked, crisscrossing her arms under her sturdy bosom. Her tone of voice caught Liz by surprise. The note of disapproval.
"I'm helping Mom build her strength."
The doctor unfurled the stethoscope draped around her neck and stuffed it into the pocket of her white coat.
"Liz, it's time to stop trying to make your mother stronger. From now on, we must focus on making her comfortable."
It took a moment for the doctor's meaning to register. When it did, Liz locked eyes with her father who nodded in agreement and knuckled away a tear.
And just like that, it was official: they were giving up the fight to save her mother's life. She glanced back at the doctor, who, in the span of seconds, had morphed from Mother Teresa to the Grim Reaper. Then slowly, fearful of how her mother was absorbing the sudden change in course, she turned to face her.
"Thank you, Doctor," Joanie said, relief blooming in her face. "I'm so very, very tired." She dropped the pink hand-weight to the carpet where it made a dull thud, and then she crawled back into bed.
# # #
Hours later, as she folded laundry in the mudroom, Liz was still in shock that they were throwing in the proverbial towel. Her mother's death was now a certainty rather than a vague phantom hovering off shore in a kind of bleak Never Never Land. She felt as if she'd failed her mother, failed the spirited grandmother of her twin boys. How she missed the verve and wit of the formerly fabulous Joan Boyle—passionate painter, lover of a good gin martini and a rousing political debate. A heaviness settled in her chest and she unzipped her sweater, taking a fortifying breath.
And mingled with her fear, Liz was stinging from the accusation in Dr. Emma's voice. "Stop trying to make her stronger." She wondered. In her fervor to keep her mother alive, had she been too hard on her? It gutted her to think that Ned's light touch may have been the better—the kinder—approach.
Matching up her father's dark socks, she tried to cut herself some slack. Maybe she'd been on the front lines too long. It had been six months since the doctor confirmed that Joanie's persistent cough was not related to her seasonal allergies. In fact, she had metastatic lung cancer. Since that devastating day last April, Liz had been at her mother's beck and call. Attending consultations at the hospital. Overseeing her array of meds. Keeping friends and relatives abreast of her treatment. During that time, she'd barely seen her own family. Her husband had been holding down the fort for their boys. A building contractor, he had some flexibility—thank God for that. So, it was he who hustled the kids off to school each morning and ferried them around to soccer games and orthodontist appointments in the afternoon. She actually missed all that. And yet her mother seemed to take her devotion and small, every day sacrifices for granted. The bulk of her gratitude was reserved for her brother, a Johnny-come-lately who'd missed the long months of heavy lifting.
While her parents took a late afternoon nap in separate bedrooms, she and Ned drifted into the family room and settled in front of the TV. He reached for the remote and switched on ESPN, never asking what she might like to watch. Then, he hoisted up his enormous, loafered feet and parked them on the antique coffee table. An exasperated sigh escaped from her lips.
Ned acted as if he owned the damn place.
"Something buggin' you?" he asked.
"You mean other than the fact that Mom—"
"Liz." He reached out and gently tugged the ends of her dark ponytail. "We've known from the beginning it was only a matter of time. There's something else. Just spit it out."
Her first instinct was to say no, she was perfectly fine. That's what she always said. But the truth was she felt worn out, sensing the ragged edges of her limits. Frankly, she didn't have it in her to suck it up.
"It drives me nuts," she said.
"That I spend hours trying to get Mom to eat. Or to go into the garden for some fresh air. But nine times out of ten, she waves me off. And then you arrive and, presto, she's Miss Congeniality. Like you're the second coming of frigging Jesus."
"Oh, that's just horseshit," he said, looking pleased. He surfed his fingers through his thinning blond hair and leaned back on the couch. Then, he reached into his jean pocket, pulling out a reefer from a tiny plastic bag.
"You can't be serious. Put that away." It dawned on her that Joanie's renewed appetite might be the result of so-called medicinal marijuana. "Don't tell me you're getting Mom to smoke that stuff."
"Not yet, but it's a damn good idea." He held the joint up to his nostrils and inhaled languorously before returning it to his pocket. How he loved to push her buttons.
"So, what are you trying to say, Lizzie? That Mom likes me best?"
"I mean, we could just ask her, right?"
"No, of course not," she said, panic creeping into her voice. She didn't want to know. But Ned got to his feet and started loping in the direction of their mother, a reckless smile on his face. Liz raced after him—castigating herself for being lured into his middle-school antics. For heaven's sake, she was a grown woman! As they simultaneously entered her room throwing elbows, their mother stirred under the covers and opened her eyes. She seemed to register something electric in the air, a charge passing between her children. Ned crouched next to her bedside, close to her ear.
"Hi, Mom," he said, taking her pale hand into his broad palm and immediately putting Liz at a disadvantage. "Did you have a nice nap?"
Her mother nodded.
"Excellent," he said in his impossibly warm, seductive voice. It was the voice he undoubtedly called upon to encourage comely young wives at the country club. Excellent volley. Excellent return of serve. Excellent form.
"Listen," he said. "We know you love both of us, of course. But we've been wondering..."
"I haven't!" Liz said.
"...who is your favorite child? Is it Lizzie—or me?"
An airless silence engulfed the room and Liz was vaguely aware that she'd stopped breathing. She was already dismissing the answer—telling herself that the constellation of tiny tumors in her mother's brain was undermining her judgement. Distorting her true feelings. For a long, tick-tocking moment, her mother's eyebrows knit together. And then an unexpected lightness broke across her face. She folded back the bedsheets and propped herself up higher on the pillows.
"My favorite child's name," she said, "begins with the letter E."
Liz glanced at her brother and he tossed back his head and laughed. She reddened—late to the game—and expelled a knowing breath. Edward and Elizabeth.
Rising up from the carpet, Ned reached for her, gathering her into his arms. "I think we can safely say she's not dead yet," he whispered.
And then Liz started to laugh, too. She laughed until her giddiness turned to tears.