My Deaf Mother flips down the visor and studies her face in the mirror. She is wearing her post cataract surgery sunglasses. They’re the cheap, plastic kind that wrap around your head to seal out the light and seal in the dark.
“I look like Movie star”, she muses.
“You do, Mommy”.
The traffic moves like an old man getting up from a nap and we are driving into the eye of a perfect storm. It’s a Wednesday afternoon which means the stores in the area give a discount to anyone over 65, which includes everyone in Holiday City, a retirement community of ten square miles of the same 6 houses differentiated only by their lawn ornaments. My parents have lived here for twenty years along with a set of gnomes, a twirling pinwheel and 3 fairies that poke out from the shrubs. These are the shrubs that my father manicures in the front yard with a pair of kitchen shears so they are perfect. He likes to use a level.
I am driving my father black 1987 Mercury Grand Maquis, it is Jersey after all, and we creep/roll/inch/ along route 37 East which intersects exit 82 of the Gardens State Parkway. It the main thoroughfare through Holiday City and it is the only road into Seaside Heights, Seaside Park, Point Pleasant and Long Beach Island. It is July, it is sunny, it is Senior discount day and I am on the only highway to the Jersey shore.
I glance over at Mommy who sits on the edge of the seat bolstered by a car pillow looking like a chubby origami bird. She closes the visor shut with a raised, penciled-in eyebrow. The snap says, “Damn you Arlene, you never listen to me.”
The stop and go traffic lights are every few blocks and at the entrances of Sam’s Club, Walmart, Rosata’s market, Panda Palace, Burger King, the community hospital, the grey medical building, the blue medical building and the brick medical building. I bear down on a yellow-turning-red light and Mommy throws her arm across my chest to brace me. The old don’t drive like this. They are slower, more mindful. I am angry and in a hurry to go nowhere fast.
Mommy raises her penciled eyebrow again. “We should leave more early.”
“It’s only 3 miles away.”
“You never know, I no wanna be late.”
“We’re fine, Ma.”
“I like early.”
“Maybe we miss the doctor. Then what happen? ”
“We’re almost there.”
“You can’t fool around with the doctors.”
Mommy readjusts her sunglasses. “I got glasses free. I like.”
“They were not free. You paid for them with the surgery, believe me, you paid for them.”
“It’s wonnerful, I can see everything.” She says as she leans forward towards the windshield to look at the sky.
“Operation yesterday, today I can see. Unabelieve. Almost is clear 100% but still blur a very little.” She points to her eyes and then gently rubs her splayed hands against each other in front of her eyes, the sign for hazy, unfocused. We’re stopped and I am grateful for a red light because I am having difficulty shifting my gaze between her hands and the road and I realize I am out of practice.
Deaf people can drive and have full conversations, arguments even with everyone in the car, the back seat included. Their eyes dart attentively between the rearview mirror, the road in front of them and the hands along side of them. Daddy’s never had an accident in 61 years and in the one accident that Mommy’s had she was in a parked car. Their insurance rates are amazing.
The traffic light changes and the car lurches forward. It’s got a hare-trigger gas pedal that I’m not used to. I am not used to a lot of things these days; blowing out 53 candles on the carvel ice-cream cake, my parents moving from our house on Buffalo Ave, living though another Chicago winter. “Sorry” this car is different from mine.” my hand quickly signs.
A year ago my sister called and said that Mommy was wearing shirts with food and stains and when she tried to ask about it Mommy got defensive. I didn’t give it another thought because Diana and my mother were always quibbling over this and that. But when I went home for Christmas the kitchen counters were a mess, there was dust everywhere. When I went to go clean it she would snip “Arlee, Why for you clean again? I just did”.
“Look, Mom, it’s dirty.”
But she would shrug and turn away, a physical punctuation mark to let me know that “conversation over”.
“I no see nothing. You too much fussy.”
Nothing could be further from truth. She was the fussy one. My mother could keep house, do laundry, check homework, be chaufeur and make homecooked meals while holding a full time job. Yes, Mommy was 83. Yes, she had stenosis that gave her back troubles. Yes, she had trouble sleeping but I knew she hadn’t slid into the abyss of old age. Up until that point I had never allowed myself to.
When the opthamologist told Mommy that she had cataracts she balked by saying that “I see fine. doctors try steal money from old people. I know their way”. Later, she confided that she was scared to have the surgery because she was Deaf and didn’t want to be blind too.
“You know blind worse than Deaf.”. I told her, “Mom Helen Keller said that blindness cut her off from things, but deafness her off from people”. My mother made a face and said, “She no know what she talk about” and left it at that.
Prepping for the surgery, with the exacting and demanding schedule of eye drops every hour, was more difficult than the surgery itself. Although the mere thought of staring into a blinding light while a laser peels away your cornea was enough to make my stomach blerg but I kept my trepidations to myself . Daddy teased Mommy about divorcing him when she saw how he really looked. After interpreting and getting Mommy situated, the surgery it was over in less time than it took me to read the old People magazine in the waiting room.
The surgi-center itself was sterile and austere and surprisingly deviod of color. I didn’t know if it was just bad decorating choice or purposefully designed so the office wouldn’t be too overwhelming to the newly sighted because Mommy was speechless when she realized what the world really looked like. “Unnabelieve”
In the car while I’m yielding to the GD cars coming out of the GD I Hop parking lot Mommy shakes her head in disgust.
“You never listen. You no know what the traffic is. I know because I live here. You want too much your own way.”
“You’re right, I was wrong”, I say taking a banana out of my bag. It occurs to me that it’s probabaly not a good idea to drive, eat and sign at the same time but I’m hungry. Mommy senses this and peels it half way and hands it to me. As I reach for my breakfast, I see them out of the corner of my eye; a jeep full of girls wearing bikini tops and the long-legged swagger of youth, and I am reminded of that summer.
It was the summer of fervent anticipation, five best girlfriends, and a rented house down the shore. It was having a drivers license, a job, scorching tight jeans and our freedom. It was the joy of being lifted by a lazy wave, the lure of being pulled by an undertow as powerful as first love and the sting of a shaved bikini line in the salty surf.
It was the summer of Sun-In and lemon juice that made blondes turn golden, redheads turn penny and brunettes turn orange. It was the blistering looks from skittish mothers as they dragged their children away from the melee. It was the silent exchange of smug glances at the women we vowed never to become.
It was the summer of surging beer shots and bong chasers, sleeping three to a bed and tiptoeing through a houseful of dozing bodies to make the noon shift at Maruca’s Pizza Parlor. It was nursing sun burns, sand burns, whisker burns and rug burns with community tubes of Neosporin and aloe-vera. It was letting ourselves be swept away by the endless flirting, the public make-outs and the sloppy breakups.
It was the simple, secret belief that we all would be young forever.
Mommy looks over at the girls, then back to me, takes the banana peel and puts it into a tissue. “That was you a long time ago.”
I watch her adjust the arm of her wrap-arounds where they bite into the soft skin above her ears. She sighs,
“Nothing stay the same. Everything change. That’s what life mean.”
She smiles at the girls who bounce and sing along with Ke$ha’s, We R who we R and murmurs. “Unabelieve, I can see. Almost is clear 100% but still blur a very little. It’s wonnerful.”
She tilts her head thoughtfully,
“Next time we should leave more early.”