Reprinted by permission of the author
The Night It Rained
I think of the times my mother might have died and didn't: when she dropped
unbatlike from the steel bar across the top of her bedroom door and hit her shoulder
on the floor; when the neighbor caught her as she lost her balance on the small dirt
path to her walkway, halting her backward fall toward the sidewalk cement; when the
drive-by shooting missed her; when she escaped the couple who wanted her to get into
their truck; when her car broke down, as it seemed to do every other month and
always at night, and countless, kind people stopped to help her and make sure she
got home safely.
Then there was the night it rained. At a familiar intersection on her way home,
Mother made a right turn and the steering wheel stuck. "The wheels only turned
right!" she narrated to me on the phone the moment she got home. "The car just went
around and around in the middle of the intersection - and the rain was pouring - the
night was just black - for almost ten minutes."
"What did you do?" My mouth dry, I pictured the surrealistic scene she described.
This was exactly the kind of thing I feared for her.
"I kept my foot very lightly on the accelerator. It was harrowing, utterly
harrowing! The car drifted in circles very slowly toward the right. Finally it edged over just far enough for me to park at a curb."
"What about traffic?"
"That was the strangest thing. Not a single car entered the intersection. In fact,
there wasn't one car at any of the four streets."
"Then who helped you?"
"I was a couple blocks from a gas station. After I stopped the car, I walked there
and called the Auto Club."
A week later, arriving home, Mother called me. "I was at the same intersection
tonight. It wasn't raining, but it was jammed with traffic. I've never been at that
intersection when every street wasn't backed up with cars."
I envisioned her brown eyes widening with awe, horror and the objective fascination
intrinsic to her imagination as she went on, "And here it was just like that again,
the heavy traffic. Just a week ago there was no one. If my car had done that any
other night?" Dread seeped into her voice. "It was eerie, I can't tell you. I sat
there about to make a right turn just like last week. It was like a Twilight Zone."
And the week before played in her mind like a simultaneous reality, the night, the
rain, the streetlights and their reflection on the street, the anomalously empty
intersection, her car going round and round and round - as her story goes around
within me now.
One day when my mother was a young woman of twenty, she developed a soaring,
mysterious fever. She left work and, rather than return to her apartment, she
dragged herself to her mother's house. When the door opened to her knock, she said,
"Mother..." and passed out in the doorway. Her mother, the nurse, took care of her
and brought her back from whatever deadly illness had struck.
But when my mother was eighty-six, her own mother had been dead for thirty-five
years and her beloved husband for twenty. She went into the hospital for hip surgery
and afterwards to a skilled nursing care hospital for recovery, and she had only me
to protect her.
But my illnesses, driven by my strange retroviral infection and the loud noise and
enmity in my apartment that ignited that infection - those illnesses, which once had
sealed our reconciliation, would now make it impossible for me to do for my mother
what she needed.
The hospital discharge planner gave me the name of a skilled nursing care hospital;
but to see her there would take me over three hours round trip on the bus. "That
will be really hard for me to get to."
She replied, "The next closest skilled care hospital that's contracted with your
mother's HMO is in Lancaster."
"Lancaster?" It might as well be El Segundo. Lancaster had to be five hours round
trip by bus and a minimum of an hour each way by car, assuming I could find someone
to drive me, an effort upon which I could never depend.
No, I had to be able to see Mother. And she had to go to a hospital that was
contracted with her HMO or she'd pay out-of-pocket, three to five thousand dollars a
month, depending on where she went. So she went to the hospital that the discharge
planner advised, the only one contracted with her HMO to which I could get; the one
to which, if only once a week, Susie, who is helping me now at Mother's house, ended
up driving me.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell says that in fairy and folktales, the dragon, who
demands virgin sacrifices and steals gold from the city or village, symbolizes "the
system." By which he meant the system of power under which we live.
"You have to be there," friends told me, of Mother's hospital stay. I didn't believe
Mother and I were about to become dragon chow.