The First Time Without
By Eric Rasmussen
Mom got on a plane; that much we know. Everything else is speculation, or evidence that may not even matter.
I blame the computer we bought her for Christmas. My sisters Kelly and Paula and I went in on it, a much more extravagant gift than normal, but it was the first Christmas without dad and we wanted to do something special. We sat in mom and dad’s living room, now just mom’s, and all the cousins helped her unwrap it. She gasped when she saw the picture on front. Kelly’s husband tried to be funny, said, “That’s not what’s in there, that’s just the box,” and Mom rolled her eyes. “I hope so,” she said. “I don’t need a computer.” We waited for Paula to find a scissors to open it, and sure enough, it was a laptop. Mom said, “You didn’t have to do this, this is too much,” through tears that seemed deeper than the usual holiday-induced variety, and we all paused because suddenly the room felt empty and incomplete. Then one of Paula’s kids asked if she could play Minecraft on it and everyone laughed a little, and we all talked at the same time about how the device would make Mom’s life so much better. Email and news and shopping and games and pictures of grandkids.
And since I “work with computers,” I got to come over the next day to set the thing up. Jesus.
“Just use one finger, Mom.” She sat at the kitchen table while I leaned over her.
“When that menu opens, that means your other finger touched the pad.”
“So then what do I do?”
“Move the cursor somewhere else and tap.”
She sat with impeccable posture and jeweled reading glasses teetering on the end of her nose. “Like this?”
“No… No. Just one finger.”
“Sweetheart, I swear that’s what I’m doing.”
We covered email and the internet, and before I had to leave for lunch we set up her Facebook profile. We friended everyone in the family and a few ladies from church. She scrolled through Kelly’s family pictures and I said, “I think the computer is a good thing for all us. Now we’ll be able to keep an eye on you.”
“You’ll still come over, right? You’ll still call?”
“Of course, Mom. We’ll still come over. Please don’t worry.”
“It’s just that I love seeing you.”
“We know, mom. We know.”
January 11th at 9:19 am
I enjoyed some oatmeal this morning! I added dried cranberries, which were fantastic. Perhaps tomorrow morning I’ll try walnuts. Or maybe both! Looking forward to a great day.
Memorial Day always belonged to Mom and Dad. After they bought the place on the lake when we were kids, it didn’t matter what sports or events or parties fell on that weekend, we always went to the cabin for fires and grill-outs and pontoon rides. Except this time, for the first time, the group was smaller than it had been the year before.
Building the Friday night bonfire had always been Dad’s job, and I assumed the task without asking, without drawing attention to the first of many weekend responsibilities that would need to be reassigned. I stacked logs on top of sticks on top of newspaper. While I tried to light it everyone found lawn chairs and made a big circle around the fire pit halfway up the yard between the cabin and the water. When all the little wisps of flame sputtered out, the advice started.
“Add lighter fluid,” said Kelly’s oldest son.
“I think your kindling is too wet,” said Paula.
“Just be patient,” said Mom. “You’re smothering it. It needs air.”
I deconstructed the whole thing and tried again, and eventually the flames grew. The little kids roasted marshmallows and swatted mosquitoes and failed to notice the significance of the first Memorial Day summer opener without grandpa. The rest of us sat quietly and thought of little else, until my daughter Haley spoke up to share her news. She’d been waiting for weeks to tell everyone.
“I have an announcement,” said Haley, and her aunt Kelly and aunt Paula shushed their kids and they all leaned forward in their chairs. “So, instead of going back to college in Minneapolis this summer, I am going to spend a semester abroad, in Italy.”
Everyone clapped and cheered. My wife interrupted so she could play proud mother. “And the whole thing is paid for with an academic grant. Haley maintained her 4.0 all freshman year.”
Everyone offered another round of congratulations. Kelly’s weirdo husband gave Haley a big hug that lasted longer than I was comfortable with, but we all were genuinely happy for her.
“A whole semester?” said Mom. “That’s too long. You can’t be away that long.”
Three different times that weekend, Mom talked about Dad like he was there. As she did lunch dishes on Saturday, she said, “Tell Rich he has to get the kids’ lifejackets before he takes them on the boat,” and Kelly and I looked at each other and didn’t say anything. Later that afternoon, she and I were in the kitchen again and when I opened the fridge, she told me to double-check if there was enough beer in there for dad. And Sunday morning, as everyone woke and gathered in the big sunroom with their coffee, she sighed and said, “Looks like grandpa is sleeping in again,” and everyone got quiet and I said, “Dad’s not here.” Mom froze, then shook her head. “I know,” she said. “I’m just being silly.”
Mom and Dad had the sort of relationship everyone wishes for and is terrified of at the same time. After forty-four years of marriage, they lost any discernible “I” in the abyss of “we.” One weekend a year, Mom went shopping with her three sisters. Another weekend, Dad went fishing with a buddy from the military. Other than that, they were never apart.
Dad died on Labor Day, at the lake. Paula and her family couldn’t make it that weekend. Her husband had a softball tournament, but the rest of us were there when, after a lunch of grilled hotdogs, dad said he needed a quick nap. He had a stroke, we hope while he was asleep.
June 9th at 8:02 am
It looks rainy today, so I’ll have to take my slicker to deliver meals! I don’t mind the rain. What I do mind is when my car smells like Salisbury steak for three days afterwards! Excited to have a fantastic day!
You can’t always trust your memory, of course, but it seems like most of my childhood was spent trying to find Mom. Whenever I needed her, she was nowhere to be found. I followed a route around the house, shouting, “MOM,” the whole time. I started in the living room, then entered the kitchen. After checking the downstairs bathroom, I went upstairs, first to her room, then the girls’ room, then mine. The front yard, the back yard. Back downstairs to the laundry room, the wood-paneled family room, and finally the dark storage area behind the partition.
About half the time I found her somewhere on this path. If not, I started the loop again. If I made it to a third lap, I started to worry. What if she left us? What if something happened? But sooner or later she would appear somewhere, pulling clothes out of the dryer, washing her hands in the kitchen sink, coming in from outside.
“Sweetie, what’s wrong?” she would say if I had started to panic and cry. “I’ve been here the whole time.” But I knew that wasn’t true. I had checked.
Mom called on a Saturday morning in August.
“Evan,” she said. “I need your help. Can you come over right away?”
“Sure,” I said. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” she said. “I’ll tell you when you get here.”
I drove over to the house, faster than I should have, parked in the street and jogged up the front walk. I knocked as I entered and found an old man standing in the entryway. His thin white hair was combed straight back, and his whitened teeth looked neon bright against his dark orange tanned skin. He wore a gold chain under a sweatshirt zipped halfway down his chest.
He stuck out his hand. “You must be Evan.”
“Yeah,” I said. “And you are…?”
“Rick,” the man said. He held my hand too long and too firm.
Mom came around the corner in old work clothes and a hairnet. “That was fast.”
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“We’re just moving some furniture. We decided this place could use a facelift. You met Rick?”
“I’ll show you what we’re thinking,” said Rick. “We can handle it quick and get you on your way.”
The living room had looked the same since my parents bought the house when I was ten, but Rick and I moved the couch against the window, switched the arm chairs around, and carried the old coffee table with the marble top into the basement. Rick pretended like he could still handle the heavy lifting, but I could tell otherwise. He needed lots of rests, lots of moments to “find a good grip.” Mom stood back and directed.
“You’re going to have ugly furniture marks in the carpet,” I said.
“Those will come out,” said Rick. “I’ve got a plan.”
When we finished, Mom said, “I think that looks nice.” She looked around the room again. “Do you two want something to drink?”
“Sure,” said Rick.
“I better get going,” I said. “But can I talk to you for a minute? Outside?”
“Okay,” said Mom.
I walked out to my car, and Mom followed. I stood in the boulevard, and sighed. “Who’s Rick?”
“I knew this was going to be a big deal.” She crossed her arms. A big pickup truck raced by, then a motorcycle. “He’s just a friend.”
“But his name is ‘Rick’? You don’t think that’s a little weird?”
“Is he… He’s not…” I could smell Mom and Dad’s house emanating from my clothes. Every time, even if I only stopped in for a few minutes, the old odor lingered the rest of the day.
“What?” Mom said, suddenly stern, suddenly less welcoming than I could ever remember.
“I don’t know. He’s not borrowing money or anything, is he? He’s not taking advantage of you?”
Mom walked back up to the house without saying anything. Rick waved at me as he opened the door for her.
March 4th at 6:12 am
Today it’s been six months since we lost Rich, and the mornings are still very hard. But I know he wants us to be happy, so that’s what I try to do, every day. If I can honor his memory a little each day, then I feel like part of him is still here.
Back up. Six months after dad died, my family took a spring break trip to Florida. Haley met us down there, which put my wife in a great mood. The boys each managed to shed their teenage attitudes for a few days and we all ate and swam and had the type of vacation we assumed would never happen again, since Haley had left for school. When we got back, I called Mom. No one answered.
I called three more times that evening. The next morning I tried Kelly and Paula, and neither had spoken with her since the previous week. I went to the house, and it was dark. Her car was gone.
On the ride home I brainstormed what to do next. Call the church and get the names of her friends. Call the police. How do people track credit card purchases? How do people put out Silver Alerts?
Kelly called a few minutes after I arrived home. “We found her,” she said.
“She’s in Iowa visiting Aunt Lorraine.”
“She just left without telling anyone?”
“Exactly. I was scared to death.”
My wife stood in front of me and whispered, “Did they find her?” and I gave her a thumbs up.
“Her memory is getting way worse,” said Kelly. “Is it time to start talking about assisted living?”
“No,” I said. “No way. She’s fine. She’s a grown woman.”
“I think you’re wrong,” said Kelly over the phone while my wife shook her head.
We’ve figured out a few of the details about mom’s plane departure. On that morning in November, she was on Facebook, because a little before nine she posted, “I don’t have many plans today. It’s too early to decorate, and the house is all clean. It might be a great day to settle in with a book. Or maybe I should take a trip!” She must have seen what was posted on Haley’s wall overnight, and it undoubtedly led to what happened next.
“I’m so scared. I’m on my trip to Europe and I was just robbed. They took my money, passport, everything. Please contact me, I need money. Please.”
It was a scam, of course, and the scammers had tacked on a fake email address. Haley was totally fine, but since she was actually in Italy, we think Mom took it seriously. Maybe she sent an email to the fraudulent address, and who knows what the assholes on the other end told her.
We don’t know what happened over the next five hours. Maybe Mom thought about how she could fix the situation. Maybe she paced around the house, full of worry over her oldest granddaughter in a foreign country. She didn’t call me or Kelly or Paula, and we don’t know why. Perhaps she’s too independent, or perhaps it just didn’t occur to her. Lots of things had stopped occurring to her.
But at two o’clock, she bought a ticket and boarded a plane at our small regional airport. I’m sure she was more than pleasant to the ticket agent. She may have told the security guards about her oldest granddaughter’s troubles over in Italy, then explained that she had to go rescue the poor kid. I’m guessing when she found her seat on the plane, she asked the man sitting next to her where he was going, and he responded, then asked her the same.
“Italy, huh?” the man probably said. “Business or pleasure?”
“Oh, this is business,” said Mom. “Very serious business.”
We didn’t learn anything from the police or the airline, of course. Without any documentation of any mental decline or evidence of wrongdoing, they said they couldn’t help. But Mrs. Herbert from Mom’s church works at the rental car desk at the airport. She watched Mom get on the plane, and she let us know.
Back up again. Three months after dad died, a few weeks before Christmas, Mom called me. It was the middle of the day, so I asked a coworker to cover my tech support calls and I stepped away from my desk and into the concrete stairwell to talk. I knew it was her right away, because her name came up on my phone. But on the other end of the line I heard nothing, only silence.
“Mom? Are you there? Is everything okay?”
Then I heard breathing, heavy and slow.
“Why do you have to be such an asshole?” she said.
It felt like being punched, and I raced to figure out what I might have done wrong. I sat on the stairs.
“Mom, I’m so sorry, but I have no idea…”
“You’re not going to talk your way out this. I am not doing this again.”
She breathed faster. “I have had it with you, Rich. I have had it. Things are changing, now.”
“Mom, hold on,” I said, then louder, “hold on.” My words echoed up four floors. “I’m not Rich. Do you… do you think I’m dad?”
“You need to shut the hell up right now and listen. Are you listening?”
After a quick pause, Mom commenced a tirade unlike anything I had ever heard. She accused me of not caring, of not taking the garbage out, of looking at other women, of failing to forge a relationship with her parents, of cheating on her, of being selfish: everywhere, always selfish. I tried to interrupt, to break the frenzy. “This is Evan.” “Mom, you’re confused.” “I’m not who you think I am.” But nothing stopped the full list of forty-four years’ worth of grievances. When she finished, she stayed on the line and breathed heavily. Nothing I said would get her to talk again, so I hung up.
July 17th at 4:45 pm
I’m curious to see who actually reads posts instead of just looking at the pictures! If you are reading this message, leave a comment with a single word that describes how we met. After that, copy this message on your wall and I will also leave you a word. Please, don’t leave a word and then not bother to copy the text. You’ll ruin the fun!
During May, maybe April, of my senior year of high school, my friend Aaron and I used skip classes all the time to drive around and smoke cigarettes. The freedom felt more intoxicating than the nicotine. We picked different hours of the school day, so we didn’t miss too much of any one class. We were good students, ultimately, and would still graduate and head to college in the fall. But the ability to exert a little control felt great. That control consisted of driving around the neighborhoods behind school, miles of ranch homes in a perfect grid with the occasional cul-de-sac for decoration. We didn’t want to talk about school, and our futures were too unknown and scary to acknowledge, so we smoked and drove and mostly stayed quiet.
One afternoon, Aaron pointed at the driveway of a blue two-story house coming up on our right and said, “Hey, isn’t that your mom’s car?”
It was. Gray Oldsmobile station wagon with a bright yellow foam sun on the radio antenna. We half ducked down, then looked behind us when we passed to make sure we were safe. We were. All clear.
When we circled around the next day, her car was parked at the same house again.
“Maybe that’s not her,” I said. “Pull over.”
Aaron stopped a few houses away, and I got out of his car and crept down the sidewalk. When I came even with the station wagon, I ducked behind it. I looked in the windows, and it was for sure Mom’s car. Her purse sat in the passenger seat. The books of crossword puzzles and magazines that kept Kelly and Paula and I occupied on long car trips peeked over the edge of the pocket on the back of the driver’s seat. A hamburger wrapper from dinner the previous week lay crumpled on the floor.
Aaron pulled forward to pick me up. “Is it her?” he asked.
“What’s she doing here?”
“I have no idea. I don’t know whose house this is.”
That night, as she peeled potatoes for dinner, I asked Mom, “What did you do today?”
“Nothing,” she said. “Just pretty much stuck around here.”
“Really? You didn’t go anywhere?”
“No, sweetie. Why?”
I shrugged a couple times, tried to act casual. “I thought I saw you drive by school today. Through the window. I was just looking out the window.”
“Nope,” she said. “Wasn’t me.”
The way I see it, there’s three potential explanations for Mom’s sudden departure.
Number one. Mom is suffering from early onset dementia. There’s a family history, I think, a great aunt who died from Alzheimer’s. Her memory is getting worse all the time and we all see it, even if we have no idea what to do about it. She got confused, worse than ever before, then got on the plane.
Number two. Mom’s depressed. Dad is gone, this Rick is trying to get close to her, she’s upset and doesn’t know what to do and suddenly all these dumb ideas suddenly seem smart, like heading to Iowa unannounced. Like rearranging the house, or flying to Europe.
Number three. Mom’s a grown woman and she gets to make her own decisions. That’s fine. Truly, it’s fine, I accept that, but that’s no excuse for not telling us. We don’t need to know where she is all the time, but getting on a plane is different. She needs to explain why she didn’t let us know. She owes us that.
The last two weeks of school before graduation, I started skipping school without Aaron. I don’t think he minded. We really didn’t talk about it.
I left through the back door by the tennis courts during passing time, but waited to pull out of the lot until the next class started. Instead of weaving through the neighborhood, I headed straight for the blue two-story. Some days Mom’s car wasn’t there, but a lot of days it was.
I parked on a cross street where I could see the station wagon through someone’s yard, between two trees. A few times I stayed for longer than a class period. One time I sat there almost the whole day, skipped lunch even, just watching and smoking until the hunger became too sharp and I left for a quick burger. By the time I got back, Mom’s car was gone.
I lived at home the summer after graduation, and Mom stayed around the house every day, like I had always assumed. She did laundry, and cleaned, and read her book. She asked if I wanted to do things with her, like take walks or see movies. Mostly I declined. Maybe when school started in fall she went back to that house. I moved away, so there was no way for me to know. But as I sat in my car for those handful of days in May, I tried to imagine what I would say to her if I saw her coming or going. I could ask her what she was doing, or who lived in the house, or maybe I would inquire about what she had to hide, or if dad knew about the visits. I would tell her, once and for all, that I didn’t care if she left. But I wanted to know where she was going.
So, one week, two weeks later, who knows? Mom is wandering around some European airport, lost and alone and unable to ask for help, or Mom is having the time of her life over in Italy, doing a little sightseeing before she goes to check on her granddaughter. Maybe Mom got back and already departed for her next trip, to see aging sisters or stateside tourist sights before it’s too late.
Or Mom is still on a plane, flying circles around the globe, confused about when to exit the aircraft, unable to remember the stewardess’s instructions.
Or Mom is with dad.
Or Mom and Rick found a little Tuscan villa and will live the rest of their lives enjoying the ocean air. Maybe we’ll get a postcard someday, or maybe we’ll see it on Facebook.
Or, the next time I come around a corner Mom will show up with an armful of folded towels or hands caked in garden dirt and she’ll look confused and say, “Relax, sweetheart, relax. I would never leave without telling you. I swear.”